NC General Assembly may nix Chapel Hill Voter-Owned Elections program

Although Chapel Hill has led the state in publicly funding local campaigns, the town’s reign as the sole provider of a municipally funded financing program could soon come to an end.

Enacted on June 9, 2008, the town’s Voter-Owned Elections ordinance works to limit campaign spending and push candidates to garner widespread community support by requiring them to collect a large number of small campaign contributions.

But the N.C. General Assembly only approved the pilot program to operate for two election cycles — the second of which will be this November.

Voter-Owned Elections
  • To receive funding, the program stipulates that candidates can only accept contributions between $5 and $20.
  • Mayoral candidates must raise at least 165 qualifying contributions that total at least $1,676.
  • Candidates for the Town Council must raise at least 83 qualifying contributions that total at least $838.

Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos said if the Chapel Hill Town Council decides to continue offering the program, it must submit a report with program data to the General Assembly after November’s election and ask for a renewal.

He said the council will discuss the issue when it plans its legislative agenda in late fall or early winter, but whether the state legislature would approve such a renewal is questionable at best.

“Things are just changing over in the General Assembly,” he said. “They seem to be moving in the opposite direction on these things, so the matter’s up in the air.”

Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, said that given the current makeup of the state legislature, he doesn’t foresee the program continuing in the near future.

“The current Republican House and Senate are hostile to any sort of public financing of campaigns, so it would seem very unlikely,” he said.

Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, said he voted for the Voter-Owned Elections program because he thought it was something that should be studied, and Chapel Hill seemed like the place for it.

“I don’t know if I would be in favor of extending it,” he said. “I generally don’t like the concept, but if local people want to do something locally it will depend on whether or not they can convince the majority of their colleagues to expand it.”

Council member Penny Rich, who used the Voter-Owned Elections program during her 2009 campaign, said she would like to see the program continue to ensure candidates don’t spend ridiculous amounts of money on campaigning.

“It needs time to catch on and for people to get a feel for it,” she said. “It would only get better over time because it allows other people who wouldn’t normally run for office to run.”

Council candidate Jason Baker said he plans to use the Voter-Owned Elections program this fall because he has been involved with it since its early stages.

“I think it’s the right way to run a campaign, and it’s hopefully going to level the playing field for someone like myself who isn’t particularly wealthy,” he said.

In addition to Baker, council member Donna Bell has also announced that she will sign up for the program.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, who used the program in 2009 and is running for a second term, said he would consider using the program again.

“Voter-Owned Elections helps break down the barriers to entry for not just candidates, but also people in the community who want to participate,” he said. “Not everyone has hundreds of dollars to give to candidates.”

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