Jan 3, 2023 - News

Denver's new Fair Elections Fund is shaping city races in 2023

Illustration of a checkmark made from one hundred dollar bills

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Local elections officials are considering a number of last-minute changes ahead of Election Day on April 4 as the Denver Fair Elections Fund β€” an $8 million public campaign financing mechanism β€” introduces logistical headaches the city is now scrambling to address.

How it works: The Fair Elections Fund, created through a 2018 ballot measure, uses taxpayer money to match donations of $50 or less at a ratio of 9 to 1 for candidates who agree to fundraise in lower sums and take contributions only from individuals and small-donor committees.

  • For mayoral candidates, the maximum donation allowed is $500, compared with $1,000 for candidates who don't participate in the program.

Between the lines: The fund has helped level the financial playing field and drawn at least 24 candidates to Denver's mayoral race.

  • In total, 73 candidates are running for city offices as of Dec. 22. Of those, 56 have tapped into the Fair Elections Fund.

Driving the news: Suggested campaign process adjustments to respond to the number of people jockeying for public office include reducing the number of required debates from two to one since there are too few interested debate hosts to accommodate the field.

  • The Denver Clerk and Recorder's Office is also considering shifting back the deadline for campaign finance filings, and moving the deadline when signed petitions to qualify for the ballot are due from Feb. 13 to Jan. 19 to ensure candidates who participate in the Fair Elections Fund have qualified for that funding.

The other side: Some critics question whether higher-profile candidates known for raising big bucks should tap into the fast-dwindling dollars that could go to grassroots campaigns.

  • Big-name candidates, like state Rep. Leslie Herod and former Denver Chamber leader Kelly Brough, have drawn the most from the fund compared to other mayoral candidates.
  • As of the latest city data available, Herod collected $157,592, while Brough took in $135,494.

What they're saying: Some deep-pocketed politicians think choosing not to draw from the Fair Elections Fund could backfire when it comes to securing voter support.

  • "They don't want to be seen as the big-money candidates and I think that's a victory for the social change that was made," Wendy Howell, state director for the progressive group the Colorado Working Families Party, told the Denver Post.

What to watch: Denver City Council is expected to vote early this year on the proposed changes from the Clerk and Recorder's Office. City leaders will also likely decide whether to replenish the fund, which is poised to run out.

  • Regardless, there's little doubt the city's new campaign financing mechanism and diverse candidate pool will shape the next municipal election.
  • "People are going to learn this year how transformative public matching funds are in terms of who can win these races," Howell said.

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