DENVER — Denver's elections earlier this week were the first since the city passed a new campaign finance system. The Fair Elections Fund was designed to even the playing field by helping more diverse candidates enter the race without big money support.
Most of the candidates for mayor and city council participated in the Fair Elections Fund. They agreed to only bring in small donations, with a maximum of $500. For any donations of $50 or less, Denver gave campaigns a match in taxpayer funds of 9 times the amount donated.
To find out if the fund worked as expected, Denver7 talked with Owen Perkins, the president of CleanSlateNow Action, a group that helped create the fund and get it passed into law.
“This was a big election for the first run or first time bringing this out,” Perkins said. “But I think there's a lot to be happy with.”
There were 16 people running for mayor, and nine vying to fill two at-large city council seats. Perkins said more candidates on the ballot led to better representation of Denver's diverse communities and viewpoints.
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“It was great for the voters of Denver to have so much choice,” Perkins said. “You had an important discussion, and important issues, that rose to prominence that I don't think would have happened if we hadn't had these kinds of candidates getting access to the ballot.”
But the new campaign finance system didn’t keep big money out of the elections.
The two front runners for mayor – Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough – both participated in the fund. But they also brought in almost $3.5 million from outside groups. Overall, outside money accounted for about half of the total funds raised for mayoral campaigns.
Perkins said the intention of the Fair Elections Fund was to make it possible for candidates without financial backing to enter the race. But it cannot restrict outside money because of standards set at the federal level.
Corporations and outside groups have been allowed to spend unlimited funds on elections since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case.
“We knew we couldn't eliminate entirely dark money and independent expenditure spending, but we could elevate what regular people can do,” Perkins said. “The aim was to give regular people with regular budgets, without access to that kind of wealth, the ability to compete in those races.”
Denver is still counting ballots, but it appears that in the mayor race the two candidates with the most outside money are likely to go head-to-head in a runoff election on June 6. Whereas, in the city council races, most candidates relied on the Fair Elections Fund for the majority of their campaign support.
While the impact of the fund remains unclear, it’s unquestionable that more candidates had the chance to run.
“I've never seen so many good candidates to be able to pick from. And I just think that's what you want as a citizen, as a resident of Denver,” Perkins said.