Politics

Portland’s campaign finance program scales back ahead of 2024 election

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
Dec. 19, 2023 2 p.m. Updated: Dec. 20, 2023 1:36 a.m.

Portland’s campaign financing program doesn’t have enough money to operate at full capacity ahead of a historic election year. For some candidates, this means losing hundreds of thousands of anticipated dollars to run their 2024 campaigns.

The city’s Small Donor Election program works to help candidates who lack wealthy donors by rewarding those who pledge to only accept individual campaign donations under $350. The city matches the first $20 of all individual donations made to participating candidates 9-to-1, effectively turning a $20 donation into $180.

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Candidates for the November 2024 election, many of whom have already kicked off their campaigns, can start collecting and spending these matched funds in February.

The city can only spend so much on these candidates. Under the program, candidates who received donations from at least 250 Portlanders could receive up to $100,000 in matching funds, those who collect 750 donations could collect up to $200,000, and those with more than 1,250 donations would be limited to $300,000 in matching city dollars. A mayoral candidate can rake in up to $750,000 in matched contributions.

But, due to a lack of money in the city’s general fund, those caps will shrink. According to an analysis by the Portland Elections Commission, those funds could drop by 60% at the start of 2024. That means candidates who counted on bolstering their budgets with $300,000 of city dollars will only be about to count on $120,000.

This news comes as a blow to candidates who built their campaigns with the city’s donor matching program running as expected. Angelita Morillo is running for a seat in District 3, a new voting district encompassing inner southeast Portland. She had planned to use part of the city’s matching funds to pay her campaign manager a living wage.

“We were planning on finalizing her pay once we got the matching funds,” Morillo said. “And now we’re going to have to revisit that. It’s upsetting.”

Candidates typically use donations on digital advertising, mailed pamphlets, campaign events, and staff, among other expenses.

Morillo also said she felt like she misled her donors by telling them that their small donations would help her battle candidates with deep-pocketed supporters.

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“This program was originally set to level the playing field for grassroots candidates like me,” she said. “But now, we’re limited.”

This will impact far more candidates than in past election cycles.

That’s because it’s the first election year under a new form of government, where City Council membership will triple in size to 12. Portlanders will be voting to fill 14 city seats, including the mayor and auditor, in November 2024. After 2026, each term will last four years, ensuring future elections only see six council seats up for grabs at a time. But that makes next November’s elections unusually expensive for the donation matching program.

As of now, 40 candidates have already signed up to participate in the Small Donor Election program. Portland’s last election in 2022 saw only three open city offices and only seven candidates participated in the campaign matching program. That campaign cycle demanded $3.4 million from the city in matching funds.

The program currently has $3.8 million on hand to help match small donor funds next year. The program needs at least $5.4 million more to meet the sprawling candidates’ funding needs in 2024.

The financial picture isn’t a surprise to the City Council, which declined to approve additional money earlier this year.

“There’s no way they’re blindsided by this,” said Susan Mottet, director of the Small Donor Election program.

Mottet said she had asked the council for small amounts of funding incrementally over the past year to spread out her program’s total financial needs.

“But their denials added up,” she said. “Now we’re looking at $5.4 million — and that’s a conservative estimate.”

The city has little money to spare. The City Council is bracing for serious cuts citywide in the 2024 fiscal year, which begins in July. Mayor Ted Wheeler will release a draft budget proposal in the spring. In a statement to OPB, a spokesperson for the mayor said that it’s too early to know if Wheeler will be able to find other dollars to cover the funding gap, with the reminder that it “would require a $5.4 million cut to other city programs and services.”

Mottet doesn’t see this being a long term funding crisis, as the budgetary needs are uniquely inflated for the expansive 2024 campaign cycle.

Correction: An earlier version had the incorrect dollar amount required to receive matching contributions. The correct amount is any campaign donation under $350.

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