Eugene Weekly : News : 1.17.08


Voter Owned Elections
Sorenson heads effort for campaign finance reform

Portland’s experiment with campaign finance reform appears to be working well, and Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson would like to see it go statewide. Sorenson is the main author of the Oregon Voter Owned Elections Act, a bill inspired not only by Portland’s experiment but also by successful statewide election reforms in Arizona, Maine and Connecticut. Iowa is gearing up to pass similar legislation this year.

Pete Sorenson

Sorenson plans to submit the bill, which is still being tweaked, to the 2009 Legislature and says it has an “excellent chance” of passing.

Sorenson is organizing a public talk on the subject at 7 pm Thursday, Jan. 24, at Harris Hall in the Lane County Courthouse downtown. Speakers lined up include Arizona State Sen. Meg Burton Cahill. Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten may appear either in person or on video. Another public presentation is planned for 10:30 am Friday, Jan. 25, at the Capitol in Salem with Sen. Bill Morrisette and Rep. Chris Edwards.

“It’s an old idea, really,” says Sorenson, citing Republican President Theodore Roosevelt’s call for public financing of federal candidates back in 1907, and Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryant’s 1924 proposal for federal candidates to be furnished with “reasonable means of publicity at public expense.”

Why is it needed today? Campaign spending has grown so much that candidacy for state offices is out of reach of most Oregonians, according to the Money in Politics Research Action Project. The group says it cost about $5,000 to run for the Oregon Senate in 1972; today it can cost more than $1 million, like the recent Senate race between Vicki Walker and Jim Torrey. The majority of the money raised today comes from business interests.

“It’s no surprise that most people feel that money has too much of an influence in current politics,” say organizers of the Iowa campaign at

How would it work? Sorensen says candidates who choose to participate would need to gather valid signatures and $5 donations from .6 percent of the registered voters in their district. Those who qualify would then get about $2 per registered voter to spend on their campaigns. The amount would be adjusted annually based on the cost of a first-class postage stamp. And since the law would be statutory and not constitutional, the Legislature would be able to adjust the funding formulas.

Participation is voluntary, so what if a traditionally funded candidate outspends the “voter owned” candidate? The participating candidate would get additional state funding, dollar-for-dollar, to match his or her opponent. Third-party spending in an election would also be subject to additional funding for compensation.

Sorenson’s bill would allow some larger private donations up to $1,000 to start up campaigns. “The majority of the time and effort,” he says, “will be spent talking to voters. That’s what this is all about, voters owning the system.”

States using this model have seen a reduction in overall campaign spending and a shift in attention away from special interests and toward public interests. “The early reviews on the systems in Arizona and Maine have been fantastic,” says a report from Portland’s Auditor Gary Blackmer and City Commissioner Erik Sten. “Candidates, political observers, and voters confirm that these systems meet their intended goal of returning power to the voters.”

Where would the money come from? Sorenson is proposing a 10 percent surcharge on all civil penalties and criminal fines. State tax forms would also include a voluntary $5 check-off box. Tax-deductible donations could also be made to the elections commission.

Who could participate as a “voter owned candidate”? The law would affect candidates for governor, secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, labor commissioner, state Senate, state House, and judges on the Supreme Court. Not covered would be local offices, recalls, initiatives and referendums.

The concepts of Voter Owned Oregon were presented at the Oregon Bus Project’s Rebooting Democracy conference last weekend and took a second place award in the “Progressive Policy Battle Royale.”

Sorenson has been a Lane County commissioner since 1997 and served in the Oregon Senate from 1993 to 1997. He has taught law and other courses at the UO, was in private practice as an attorney and served in the Carter administration. He also ran for governor in the 2006 primaries.

People wanting to contact Sorenson to make suggestions on the language of the bill or help get it passed can email him at