In January 2020, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed the Clean Campaigns Act, which bans political spending in city elections by corporations under partial foreign ownership or other forms of foreign influence. The law is working: this year’s election, unlike 2019’s, isn’t drowning in money from corporations answering to investors in other countries. And it’s inspired similar bills in the U.S. Congress, New York State (where the state Senate passed it earlier this year), Massachusetts, and elsewhere. 

Is there a problem? The Seattle Times editorial board thinks so. The editors offer three main objections to the law.

First, they say, the law applies to some companies, like Amazon, that employ many Seattleites. That’s correct. But corporations don’t generally consult with their workers before deciding how to spend money on elections; in fact, corporate political spending often aims to combat policies that their own workers might very much appreciate. Rather, as expert witnesses testified to the City Council back in 2019, corporations act in the interests of their investors. When those investors are foreign entities—which are already prohibited by federal law from directly spending their own money on U.S. elections—the interests of Seattle-based employees are not first on executives’ minds.

Second, the editors object that the law doesn’t prevent donors from outside Washington State from spending in Seattle elections. But that’s like complaining that an air conditioner doesn’t stop the rain. The law works to reduce foreign influence. It’s ideal when campaigns are funded mainly by constituents—it turns out that Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program helps enormously—but this law wasn’t intended to solve every issue under the sun. The law targets political spending by foreign-influenced corporations, and it does it well.

Third, the editors suggest that the bill’s primary legislative sponsor, Councilmember Lorena González, reaps some sort of unfair advantage in her own current mayoral campaign from an electoral environment where foreign-influenced corporations can’t dump millions into super PACs. That doesn’t seem to be accurate. As the editorial admits, the primary outside spending group supporting González has raised $997,000, whereas the main outside group supporting her opponent Bruce Harrell has raised 32% more than that—$1.31 million. But more importantly, the law’s purpose wasn’t to help or hurt any particular candidate. The purpose was to protect Seattle’s democratic self-government from foreign influence via political spending by foreign-influenced corporations.

Readers might wonder why corporations didn’t oppose the Clean Campaigns Act when it was under consideration by the City Council, or why they haven’t sued to block it. After all, corporate interests aren’t shy about challenging Seattle’s laws in court when they think they have a case. They challenged the $15 minimum wage law, claiming it was a form of “discrimination”; they challenged the Democracy Vouchers Program, claiming it was “compelled speech”; and they’ll undoubtedly be back to challenge others. 

The reason they haven’t filed a lawsuit challenging the Clean Campaigns Act isn’t because they can’t afford lawyers. Rather, as Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe and Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub explained to the City Council, it’s because the law fits within a specific constitutional category of prohibitions on political spending (most eloquently articulated, as it happens, by current Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh) that target foreign influence. 

This issue isn’t partisan. Polling shows that 73% of Americans—including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans—support legislation like Seattle’s Clean Campaigns Act. In Seattle, the law has stopped the flood of political spending from corporate executives acting on behalf of international investors. Whoever wins the 2021 mayoral election, the Clean Campaigns Act is already a success.

Cindy Black is the executive director of Fix Democracy First, the local nonpartisan organization that advocated and testified on behalf of this law from 2018-2020.