Denver’s fair election fund will finally be in effect in 2023. And the $8 million could go fast.

Overhauling Denver’s campaign finance rules was popular with voters in 2018.

More than 70% of Denverites who cast ballots that year voted for Referred Measure 2E. The sweeping change to the city’s campaign rules ratcheted down contribution limits for candidates seeking every seat from mayor to the city auditor, banned direct corporate and union campaign contributions and established a fair elections fund to provide public financing for candidates who agreed to abide by even lower contribution limits and other rules.

Participate in the fair elections fund and receive a 9-to-1 public funding match on contributions from Denver residents between $5 and $50. In other words, a $50 donation becomes $500 with taxpayer money so long as the donor hails from the city and county.

A lot has happened since then. First, the measure’s backers struck a deal with the City Council to delay the law’s effective date until after the 2019 municipal election instead of trying to enact the changes amid an already active municipal campaign season. Then, in 2020, the fair election fund was eyed as a source of extra money to pay for council priorities not funded in Mayor Michael Hancock’s 2021 budget. A bill that would have rerouted roughly $2.1 million from the fund died on the council floor.

Denver’s 2023 municipal election is inching closer and, finally, the city’s fair elections fund will come to bear on local races. The two-person team running the program will send the first round of approved payments to the city’s controller’s office for distribution on Aug. 15.

“We’re not going to speculate on who is going to get what until the 15th,” said Andy Szekeres, a longtime fundraising consultant who joined the city staff last year to head up the fair elections fund program. “We’re quadruple auditing everything. Our No. 1 priority is protecting the taxpayer dollars and ensuring that there is no fraud.”

The Denver Elections Division’s ultra-careful accounting aside, there is a legitimate concern that the $8 million in funding voters authorized in 2018 won’t be enough to pay out all the candidates who qualify for the public matching between now and the deadline to participate next February.

As of Friday morning, 44 candidates had already filed paperwork to run for city offices next year in an election that will include all 13 council seats and the first open mayoral race since 2011. Some high-profile mayoral candidates with strong fundraising pedigrees are still waiting in the wings.

Of those 44 people, 32 have opted into the fair elections fund so far. Fifteen of those campaigns will receive checks this month and that list will grow by the next round of payments in October, according to Szekeres.

The fund does not provide unlimited matching dollars. Mayoral campaigns can claim a maximum $750,000. Candidates running for at-large City Council seats, Denver clerk and recorder and city auditor can top out at $250,000 and those vying for a council district seat can claim no more than $125,000.

Szekeres is keeping a close eye on campaign finance filings and new candidate paperwork to project just how fast the $8 million (which also pays for the fund’s administration) could go out the door.

“There is potential that we run out of the $8 million,” Szekeres said. “I think it’s hard to get there unless there are four of five mayoral candidates that pull that full $750,000 out. Right now we feel like we have sufficient funds based on who has announced.”

There have been more than 2,000 individual contributions across campaigns that have qualified for public matching dollars so far in this election cycle, Szekeres said. That’s a significant volume that he feels demonstrated Denverites still believe strongly in the value of the public financing option.

City officials remain hopeful that the $8 million will hold out, but if it doesn’t there are two primary options for what would happen next, Szekeres said. The first option, as laid out in the legislation itself, is that participating campaigns would be freed from the lower contribution limits they agreed to by opting in.

For mayoral candidates, that would mean bumping up contribution limits to $1,000 from $500. For people running for at-large council seats, city clerk, auditor or judge, the limits would go up to $700 from $350 and for district-level council candidates, limits would rise to $400 from $200.

The other option, Szekeres said, is going to the City Council and asking for more money to bridge the gaps.

That might be a hard sell.

District 2 Councilman Kevin Flynn is participating in the fair election fund as he seeks a third term. He helped draft the language that turned the law from a citizens’ initiative into a referendum in 2018. While the first election may highlight areas the program needs to be tweaked, he feels the fair elections fund is a strong system that he wants to see work.

He would not support adding additional public funding for the 2023 election. The remedy for the fund being tapped out is already written into the legislation, he said. An inflation-based increase in funding is also built into the law. The first adjustment would be made in 2024.

“This first cycle will be the test case because the fund is used to pay the costs of setting up the system,” Flynn said in an email. “I wouldn’t want that initial outlay to be used to set a precedent that the taxpayers will backfill shortages in the future.”

The launch of the fair elections fund has coincided with the launch of a much more user-friendly campaign finance portal and research tool that the clerk and recorder’s office calls SearchLight Denver. The technology has been instrumental in administering the fund, Szekeres said.

A peek at the online campaign finance dashboard shows that Travis Leiker, board president for the Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods neighborhood association and at-large City Council candidate, has raised more money than anyone else seeking office in 2023 so far. His $72,625.87, as of the most recent filing, comfortably beats out competitor Sarah Parady’s $66,783.85.

Leiker, whose day job involved raising money for the University of Colorado, is participating in the fair elections fund and fully expects to reach the at-large candidate max of $250,0000. By his count, he has 331 contributions that qualify for matching funds already. Seeking smaller contributions from a wider range of supporters aligns with his values, he said.

“I did not even think about not doing it,” he said of the fair elections fund. “Yes, it’s a little bit more paperwork ranging from accounting to proper receipting and acknowledgment of the program on marketing materials. But that’s the right thing to do because ultimately, this is taxpayer money and we have a duty and responsibility to track it appropriately and spend it appropriately which we intend to do on my team.”

On the other end of the spectrum is fellow at-large candidate Jeff Walker. Walker, a former Regional Transportation District board member, has collected just $3,208 in contributions thus far. He voted for the fair elections fund measure in 2018 but has opted not to participate.

Through his work on the RTD board, Denver Planning Board and in other public arenas, Walker is confident in his ability to raise money from a wide network of contributors. He’s also made it a habit to be very judicious about when and where he uses public money during his time in elected office.

“Most elected officials get tripped up because they use public money,” Walker said. “The fewer lines on my financial filings, the better for me.”

He doesn’t begrudge any candidate for participating in the fair election fund but when he voted for it, he saw it more as a tool for political outsiders that don’t have networks of potential donors than a path for people with the means to raise money on their own to potentially raise even more. If the fund is tapped out in Year 1, that may discourage some people from running if they were going to rely on that public funding. That said, he still views the fund as a positive for electoral politics in Denver.

“The benefit of giving someone some seed money, of leveling that playing field, that outweighs any unintended consequences,” Walker said.

Since 2023 will be its maiden voyage, Szerkeres and his colleagues at the elections division are taking a wait-and-see approach in terms of how the fund impacts campaign behavior.

Public financing for campaigns does exist in other municipalities around the country. While the scope of their programs is certainly different, Szekeres looks at Washington, D.C., and New York City’s public financing efforts as similar to what Denver is doing.

New York grew its matching program between 2017 and its most recent city election in 2021. The ratio of public dollars to donor contributions rose from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1, said Matt Sollars, spokeswoman for the New York City Campaign Finance Board. A post-election report is due out in the next few weeks, but Sollars said some top-line takeaways are that the program had a record-setting year.

The city doled out $127 million in match funds, blowing away the previous record of $48 million in 2001. Of more than 400 candidates for municipal offices, 308 qualified for payments including now Mayor Eric Adams.

To the administrators overseeing the program, 2021 was a demonstration of public matching funds making good on the promise of opening up elected office to more people, not just people with access to wealth.

“New York City’s expanded matching funds program makes it much easier for regular New Yorkers to raise money from within their community and have a real shot at winning,” Amy Loprest, executive director of the city’s finance board, said in a statement. “As a result, in 2021, city voters saw a remarkably diverse pool of candidates on the ballot and elected a majority female city council for the first time in history.”

One thing seems certain in Denver, 2023 is going to feature a long ballot. And, anecdotally at least, Szekeres feels campaign season has started earlier than before.

Leiker ran to represent District 10 on the City Council in 2015. He declared for that race less than five months before the election. He declared on March 3 this year, more than a year ahead of the election day on April 4, 2023. He felt the long runway was necessary to communicate his message but also to maximize his fair elections fund dollars.

Flynn accepted his first qualifying contribution on Jan. 1, 2020, the first day of eligibility.

“We’ve seen a huge number of candidates. We don’t know if it’s because there are so many open seats or if it’s the fund or the political climate,” Szekeres said. “We don’t have a lot of good data on when people sort of announcing but we feel like we have more active campaigns now than we have previously.”

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