With just weeks to go until candidates can opt in to a new public campaign financing program, the city of Portland, Oregon, is still testing the software that will run it.

A recent oversight report shows the software, developed by the nonprofit Civic Software Foundation, is at risk of not being delivered on time before the 2020 primary election cycle kicks off in September.  

That prompted concern this week from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who has at least one opponent planning to use public financing. 

“I want to continue to express my serious ongoing concerns about the viability of this program overall,” he told his City Council colleagues. “We already have candidates lining up declaring that they’re going to use this program, in this cycle.” 

But city staff and technology advisors said the project is in better shape than the oversight report suggests. They said the software should be ready in time to handle the influx of candidates, and the project — though not without risk — has been a significant innovation. 

The new elections software has been developed in about six months for a lean $155,000. The key: volunteer coders working alongside a few paid project managers. 

“I think the city is getting a really good deal here. That would be my summary of where we are,” said Wilfred Pinfold, a computational scientist and professor at Portland State University who serves on the Technology Oversight Committee, an independent citizen advisory group that monitors high stakes technology projects for the city of Portland.

“There’s an enormous amount of volunteer work from people who care passionately about open and accountable elections that are supporting this,” he said.  

The stakes for the city are high, and not just because of looming elections deadlines.

Portland has a record of troubled technology projects, such as an electronic system for building permits the city spent millions on and ultimately had to scrap.

The city’s last try at taxpayer-funded campaigns also faltered. Voters repealed it in 2010, during the recession, after a high-profile case of fraud. 

The new software — if it works — will provide a first line of defense against any candidates trying to manipulate the system. But necessity drove Portland’s unusual decision to acquire critical software for an elections program from a volunteer-driven nonprofit.

The software, when complete, will collect campaign finance data from candidates who are opting in to Portland’s new public financing program, known as Open and Accountable Elections

The software will automate some of the steps city staff take to verify if donations to a candidate are eligible for public matching dollars, and power a website with visualizations that show the public where each candidate’s money comes from. 

The code that powers the software is all open-source, meaning that other cities could adapt it at very little cost.

Pinfold said it could be broadly useful to other cities and states that want to make it easier for the public to track money in campaigns.

“That’s something we get out of this you wouldn’t get out of a package developed as a proprietary tool,” he said.

A Final Victory For Amanda Fritz

The last-minute push to complete the software stems mainly from decisions made by the mayor and city council over the past three years. 

Portland City Council created the new taxpayer-funded campaign finance system in 2016. It was a signature policy for Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who first won office using the old system of public financing. 

Commissioner Amanda Fritz listens to testimony at City Hall in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz listens to testimony at City Hall in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

The new program’s stated goal is to reduce the influence of money and the appearance of corruption in politics.  

It incentivizes candidates to seek small donations from local residents by providing a match using public tax dollars. 

To opt-in, candidates have to agree to limits on fundraising and expenditures. They can only accept $250 per donor per election, and they can only take money from individuals, not PACs, corporations or unions. 

To show they are viable and serious, candidates for mayor have to get donations of at least $5 apiece from 500 Portlanders, while candidates for city commissioner have to get donations from at least 250 residents.

If they meet that threshold, candidates become eligible to receive matching dollars. Every dollar a Portland resident donates to their campaign — up to $50 —  is matched with $6 from the city’s open elections fund. 

The council set the program to launch this year for candidates competing in the 2020 election cycle. But they didn’t fund it or start hiring program staff until last June. 

That meant shortly after she was hired, the new director of Open and Accountable Elections Susan Mottet faced a Catch-22. 

She didn’t have the funding for a large staff to manually track the 2020 candidates’ campaign finance data. And she didn’t have enough time to purchase software to automate that task.

(Mottet characterizes the program she runs as underfunded and short-staffed for its first year; those concerns also are one reason the city auditor has refused to have public financing housed in her elections division.)

Fritz, who announced she isn’t seeking re-election, is currently overseeing the program. 

“In order to stay within the budget that they gave us, we needed technology to be ready for the first cycle,” Mottet said. “But technology is not procured in this city in that short a timeline.”

The problem led Mottet to the Civic Software Foundation, formerly Hack Oregon, a nonprofit that connects local coders with civic-minded volunteer projects and develops open-source software. (Editor’s note: OPB worked with Hack Oregon on an earthquake preparedness program in 2015.) Foundation officials signed a contract in March and put a team of experienced volunteers to work coding for the city.  

“They agreed to do their level best to deliver us software in the timeline the law requires,” Mottet said. 

Delivering the software on time has, all parties agree, resulted in a mad rush. Mottet said that after initial delays, the city hired a few extra paid developers to speed up the process.

Meanwhile, candidates are lining up to participate in the Open and Accountable Elections Program. One candidate for mayor, Sarah Iannarone, said she’s already met the key eligibility requirement of getting 500 individual donations from Portland residents. Four other candidates for city office have given official notice they will try to qualify for public financing.  

Wheeler has yet to formally announce his reelection campaign or indicate if he intends to participate in the public financing program. If he did, it would mean forgoing the large contributions from corporations and developers that helped bankroll his victory in 2016. 

Candidates can formally file for office and ask to be approved into the public financing program starting Sept. 12. The 2020 primary is May 19.

Cutting It Close

Mottet said the most critical piece of the software she needs in order to start working with those candidates next month has been delivered and approved by the city; it’s the module that allows candidates to enter their donation information for her review. 

Two other critical pieces of the software are due to be delivered next week, which, Mottet said, “is cutting it really close.”

One of the outstanding pieces of software, known as module 3, will check donor names against voter registration information to help confirm that a campaign’s donors are real adults who live in Portland and haven’t given before.

Mottet is preparing to hire additional community service aides who can help her validate donor names and addresses and work on fraud detection during the first month of the campaign if module 3 isn’t ready in time. That could cut into the funding that’s available for candidates. 

The data visualizations that will show the public where a candidate’s donations come from are also due later, in October. 

But Pinfold and Mottet both said that if the Open and Accountable Elections program hadn’t taken a gamble on working with the Civic Software Foundation, it would be stuck collecting all the data it needs to run the program by hand because commercial vendors would never have agreed to the project’s budget or timeline. 

“We can already collect the bulk of the information we need through the software, and that’s great,” Mottet said

Ready or not, the software will debut to the public on Sept. 11, when the Civic Software Foundation hosts a public demonstration for all its projects at Portland’s Revolution Hall.

“This is not amateur hour. It’s real software,” said Cat Nikolovski, the founder of the Civic Software Foundation. “I would invite everyone to come if they’re curious.”