Ethics and Elections Commission debating debates

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission meets on Wednesday, and will take on a tough question: how to fix the requirement that candidates participating in the Democracy Voucher program participate in at least three public debates.

The problem is one of definition: what qualifies as a “debate?” Specifically, does it include events where not all of the candidates for a position are invited to participate?  In 2017, this became an issue when one candidate participating in Democracy Vouchers failed to meet the qualification through public forums where only a limited number of candidates were invited.

But what happens when a race draw a large number of candidates? Two years ago there were 21 candidates for mayor. If all the candidates had participated in a three-hour debate, that would have given each one less than nine minutes of speaking time. It’s easy to make the case that such events provide limited value to the voters in learning about the candidates.

The Commission’s staff has offered a proposal to resolve this: setting a minimum number of campaign contributors for a candidate to be a required invitee for a debate (i.e. if an event happens where a candidate with enough contributors isn’t invited, it doesn’t count toward the qualifications for the Democracy Vouchers program). For City Council and City Attorney races, a candidate would need 50 contributors to be a required attendee. For Mayoral races, a candidate would need 100 contributors. That doesn’t mean other events with limited invitees are prohibited, or that candidates are prohibited from participating in them; it simply means that participation in those other events don’t count towards qualification for the Democracy Voucher program. Also, public agencies would still be required to invite all candidates to events they organize.

As the Commission’s memo notes:

 In the 2015 City Council elections, in which all nine seats were on the ballot, 33 candidates would have met the threshold, and 14 would not.  The largest debates would have featured five candidates, and the smallest would have featured two.
In the 2017 City Council and City Attorney elections, eleven candidates would have met the threshold and six would not.  In the 2017 Mayoral election, eight candidates would have met the threshold and 13 would not.

According to SEEC Executive Director Wayne Barnett, the law gives the Commission the authority to define a “debate,” so this change would not need to be approved by the City Council. The Commission would also have discretion as to setting the date that the new definition becomes effective — including potentially making it effective immediately and apply to this year’s campaigns.

Barnett stressed that Wednesday’s meeting will be the Commission’s first discussion of the proposal, and if it is interested in taking it forward then there would be a public hearing before its formal adoption.