Public election finance, political contributions, and other money mechanics in the state of Oregon

Money matters in elections. Even if a candidate has significant community support, they need a serious amount of money to run a successful campaign. But the amount of money necessary to participate in Oregon’s political processes is unusually high — and rising.

The 2018 gubernatorial race between Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Knute Buehler set fundraising records. Between the two candidates, they raised more than $40 million. As of January 2022, the leading fundraisers in this year’s gubernatorial election have already raised more than $11.2 million with ten months left to go before the general election. This year’s fundraising total will likely blow past 2018’s. And the governor’s race is just the start: candidates in Oregon raise and spend more money per capita than in any other state except New Jersey.

One of the key reasons for those outrageous numbers are Oregon’s limits on campaign contributions. On the state level, there just aren’t any. While there’s an effort to change that underway (which we’ll get into), candidates running for state office can take any amount of money from any kind of donor. The only other states without restrictions are Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, and Virginia. Oregon also has fewer restrictions than most other states on how candidates and elected officials can spend campaign funds. That’s why Oregon received an F ranking from the Center for Public Integrity, along with low transparency on ethics concerns.

How did we get here?

There are plenty of puzzle pieces that contribute to this state of affairs. The Oregon state constitution is perhaps the most obvious problem. Between the way it was written and how it has been interpreted by judges and other officials, the state constitution has effectively banned constraints on election funds. In 2020, Oregon voters approved updating the constitution with language to allow for campaign finance reform. But that’s not the whole problem — or an effort by the state legislature to pass such reforms in 2021 would have passed.

Here’s a timeline of state-level efforts at reforming Oregon’s campaign finance laws:

One of the other pieces of the puzzle is that state legislators have no incentive to change things. In fact, the current situation benefits state legislators. In Oregon, both state senators and state representatives earn $32,839 per year plus a per diem of $151 when the legislature is in session. Being a state legislator is not considered a full-time job (despite a workload that suggests otherwise), so legislators either need to have a separate full-time job or another source of funds. That either means some sort of inherited wealth or accepting funding from some other source. Since state legislators already have to fundraise to cover election costs, their campaign funds are a logical place to pull money from. Oregon has relatively few rules on how campaign funds can be used and legislators have figured out ways to use their funds to cover living expenses and even to legally double dip for reimbursements for expenses that should be covered by their per diems. With just a little bit of effort, a state senator or a state representative can do quite well financially, though doing so requires ignoring the needs of their constituents.

Paying state legislators more would likely make both the State Senate and State House more diverse. When combined with campaign finance reform, higher salaries could reduce legislators’ reliance on donated funds — and maybe make passing those reforms easier.

Different elections, different rules

While state law governing campaign finance is currently fairly simple, or nonexistent, as the case may be, every level of government has its own rules. Figuring out what rules a given candidate is playing by can be complicated. Let’s run through where things currently stand:

Money from larger campaigns also trickles down to smaller races. Buehler didn’t actually manage to spend all the money he raised for his 2018 run. That unspent money doesn’t go back to donors — instead, Buehler had options like rolling the money over into a future campaign run, leaving it to sit in a bank account indefinitely, or donating it other politicians’ campaign committees or to party activity. He’s been using those funds to support several candidates this election cycle, along with offering his endorsement. Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton is one such candidate. Barton is running for reelection and received $1,000 from Buehler’s campaign fund. Interestingly, Buehler’s largest donor in 2018 was Phil Knight, who gave $2.5 million to Buehler, which was a record-setting donation in a record-setting election. In 2018, Knight also gave Barton $100,000, which was also the largest donation in the race for the Washington County district attorney’s office, which in turn is the most expensive Oregon district attorney’s race to date. Knight has already donated $100,000 to Barton’s 2022 campaign, as well.

Elections within a state must adhere to that state’s election laws, so someone running for county commissioner must follow the rules for both state elections and for their local county. Tribal elections don’t fall under the same rules, as tribes have rights of self-governance. However, meeting state requirements doesn’t take much effort here for candidates already in compliance with their local requirements.

Being out of compliance isn’t necessarily a big risk, though: because most of the oversight bodies are, in turn, overseen by elected legislative bodies, there’s little incentive to put big penalties into place. Even the judges who hear cases on the legality of campaign laws here in Oregon also run for office and therefore find themselves fundraising. Civil penalties are the norm at every level, and the various oversight bodies have substantial freedom in choosing which laws to enforce and which candidates to penalize.

Municipal and county elections: same problems in smaller ponds

As you may have noticed, campaign finance reform is an issue that touches on every level of government. But the impacts of loose oversight play out differently in smaller campaigns. Let’s look at another timeline:

Portland’s off-again-on-again relationship aside, publicly financing candidates’ elections has arguably been one of the most effective methods of controlling corporate funds in campaigns. The 2016 program is an improvement over earlier efforts, in part because it relied on an existing framework rather than trying to come up with a whole new system from scratch. Amanda Fritz, then the only city commissioner to have been elected in Portland through public campaign financing, championed the effort. The vote was held after 2016 election results came in, so the other two supporters of the program — Charlie Hales and Steve Novick — were lame ducks, with only weeks left to go on their terms. Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman both voted against the new program.

Originally named Open and Accountable Elections, the program was renamed Small Donor Elections last December. Other modifications also went into place. As the program currently stands, candidates must follow a qualification process that includes gathering donations under $250 from at least 250 Portland residents (750 donations are required for mayoral candidates). Once those qualifying donations are certified, candidates can get matching funds for the first $20 of every donation at a rate of 9 to 1, so that $20 becomes $180. Candidates for city commissioner or auditor can raise up to $200,000 for a primary run and another $240,000 if they advance to the general election. Mayoral candidates can raise $300,000 for primaries and $450,000 for general elections. Donors can only have $20 of a donation to a given candidate matched in the primary and another $20 in the general. Write-in candidates can’t access funds, nor can any registered candidates joining the race after the end of January. Small Donor Elections have already made a difference in who can run for city office in Portland.

After being outspent in 2018, I was proud when Portland joined 32 other cities, counties, and states across our country in establishing a proven program for limiting the corrupting influence of mega-donors. I am honored to have the early and strong support of small donors in a campaign where $5 matters. Our democracy is stronger when we reject the control of wealthy special interests and center everyday Portlanders and working families in our political process.”

Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty

However, because Small Donor Elections were implemented based on a city council decision, there are numerous ways that the program could be canceled, including by opposition from city commissioners. The program has already undergone some major changes, including bounding around various bureaus before landing under the oversight of the city auditor. Participation is also not mandatory, as Wheeler thoroughly demonstrated during his 2020 run for reelection as mayor and police commissioner. When politicians can choose between public financing and accepting big donations (as well as loaning their own campaigns six figures), public financing options are less effective. The City of Portland doesn’t budget enough for the Small Donor Elections program to make candidates effective when they’re unable to access that kind of money. And because public campaign finance rules feel arcane to many voters, it’s easy for candidates to make self-promoting claims about their lack of participation, like this statement Wheeler’s campaign manager, Danny O’Halloran gave OPB, that claimed self-funding meant that Wheeler was saving taxpayers time and tax money:

Mayor Wheeler chose early in his campaign not to take taxpayer dollars to finance his re-election. He understood that this put him at a competitive disadvantage when it came to fundraising…As the incumbent mayor, this decision regarding his campaign ensures that his time is spent addressing the needs of the city and continuing to work every day putting the interests of Portlanders first.”

Danny O’Halloran

Just like on the state level, enforcing campaign finance limits is difficult. Even when we can assume the best of someone responsible for providing oversight, every aspect of the process is controlled by elected officials. For instance, Portland’s mayor and city commissioners set the budget for the City Auditor’s office, can decide whether the City Attorney will handle cases on behalf of the auditor, and can assign responsibilities to the auditor’s office with little input from the current auditor.

Can 2022 be the year Oregon’s campaign finance laws change?

There are currently three initiative petitions for the November ballot that could create campaign finance constraints. If you’re the type of person to read through all of the initiative petitions that go up on the Secretary of State’s website, you might notice that Initiative Petitions 43, 44, and 45 are very similar, which might make you wonder why there are three different petitions.

The answer is that good governance groups are trying to improve their chances of getting a single proposal from the initiative petition stage actually on the ballot as a full measure that voters can consider. While there’s no consensus between the various organizations and individuals who support campaign finance reform on exactly what limits Oregon should enact, the timeline for getting an initiative petition on the ballot is tight. For an initiative petition to actually make it on to the ballot, organizers will need to collect 112,020 valid signatures from Oregon voters by July 8th. Failing to meet procedural requirements could mean delaying a ballot measure on campaign finance reform until 2024.

The three measures differ a bit, but each would create new limits on what financial contributions can be made, as well as add requirements that ads display top donors and that “dark money” groups disclose funding sources. An individual would be able to give $4,000 per election cycle to candidates for statewide office and $2,000 per cycle to legislative candidates. The same limits would apply to PACs associated with specific candidates. The measures would still allow committees associated with political parties to give $100,000 per cycle to candidates for statewide office and $20,000 to legislative candidates. They would also set higher limits for small-donor committees like those used by labor unions. Caucus committees would be limited to $10,000 per election cycle. Violations would be punishable by fines starting at the amount of the illegal campaign contribution. One of the initiative petitions would create a public financing option for state-level races, with up to $8 million available to gubernatorial candidates.

While getting enough signatures on a public petition during COVID-19 has already proven difficult, that may not be the biggest barrier to these potential ballot measures. Without consensus from groups like Planned Parenthood, the Coalition of Communities of Color, and public employee unions, passing any of the suggested measures is unlikely. The main sticking point is how these organizations would be able to spend money in future elections. Hopefully, good governance groups can build a coalition to support one of the options, but right now anything is possible — including a stakeholder filling another initiative petition or two in hopes of finding a proposal that will get everyone on board.

As the initiative process moves forward, voters should keep an eye out for opportunities to sign petitions to put campaign finance reform on the November ballot. Exactly which petition may matter in the future, but right now, any constraints on donations to campaigns are better than nothing.

By Thursday Bram

Thursday Bram founded PDX.Vote after making numerous zines, newsletters, and other media about politics in Portland, Oregon. Thursday has also written for publications ranging from to Entrepreneur Magazine. You can find more of Thursday's work at