‘Democracy in dollars’ plan would reshape Oakland’s campaign finance rules

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Currently, less than 1% of Oakland residents donate money to candidates for city council, mayor, school board and other local offices, according to a city report.

More than half of Oakland residents’ contributions to local political campaigns come from just four ZIP codes, in Montclair, Rockridge and North Oakland, predominantly white areas and more affluent than the rest of the city.

And about half of Oakland’s election money comes from sources outside the city.

A 2020 report by the Public Ethics Commission, Oakland’s good governance watchdog, explained why this is an unfair system. “The fact that the donor class is not fully representative of Oaklanders is a problem because political donations can provide access and influence to elected officials. Additionally, the candidates who raise the most money in campaign contributions almost always win in Oakland elections, which means those who contribute to a candidate’s campaign – and help their chosen candidate win – are those who actually choose the leaders of the city.

A coalition of groups calling themselves Bay Area Political Equality Collaborativeor BayPEC, wants to change that by rewriting Oakland’s campaign finance rules to encourage mass participation.

Groups including Oakland Rising, ACLU of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, CA Common Cause, League of Women Voters-Oakland and MapLight presented their plan at last night’s meeting of the Commission on Public Ethics, which was established in 1996 to advise city council on potential changes to municipal laws governing elections.

“We believe in hard work, connecting elected officials and voters, and accountability to the community, not money and wallets,” said Oakland Rising Executive Director Liz Suk. , to the committee. The coalition believes it has a plan to help correct Oakland’s campaign finance imbalances.

Every voter in Oakland would receive $100 in ‘democracy dollars’

The coalition’s plan, in a nutshell, is to allow every voter in Oakland to donate money to political candidates, regardless of income level. Here’s how it would work.

  • When local elections are held every two years, the city would set aside $4 million from the general fund for what would be called “democracy dollars.”
  • Each eligible voter in Oakland would receive $100 from Democracy in the form of four $25 vouchers. These vouchers can only be issued to candidates for City Council, Mayor, Auditor, City Attorney and School Board. A voter could donate all $100 to one candidate or split it between two to four candidates.
  • Candidates who receive dollar democracy vouchers from Oakland voters can take an equivalent amount from the $4 million pool of public money and spend it on advertising, polls, events and other legitimate campaign expenses.
An example of good “democracy in dollars” used in the Seattle election. Credit: Screenshot of the CA Common Cause presentation at the CEP meeting

According to the BayPEC coalition, this would reduce the outsized power of wealthy individuals and interest groups in local elections and encourage candidates to speak to residents who have historically been ignored during the crucial fundraising phase of elections. It would also encourage more people to vote.

The program is based on one implemented by Seattle few years ago. “Seattle has seen a huge increase in the number of small donors, donor diversity and new voters,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause and former member of the Oakland Ethics Commission.

Candidates are expected to qualify for Democracy Dollars by first receiving a set number of traditional cash contributions, ranging from 75 for school board candidates to 400 for mayor. And candidates should limit the total amount of money they spend on their campaign to get democracy money. School board candidates are expected to stay under $75,000 while city council candidates could spend up to $150,000, and mayoral candidates could top $470,000.

The program could end up pumping a significant amount of funding into the elections. In the 2018 mayoral race, for example, incumbent Mayor Libby Schaaf raised more than $500,000. His two main challengers, Cat Brooks and Pamela Price, raised $191,000 and $98,000 respectively.

In addition to the $4 million to fund the “dollar democracy” vouchers, the Public Ethics Commission would also need about $1.25 million from the city to hire four new employees and run the program, which brings the total public cost to $5.25 million every two years. .

The Public Ethics Commission backs the idea, but not everyone thinks it will level the playing field

The seven-person commission voted four to one last night to back the dollars for democracy proposal and has had its staff work with the BayPEC coalition to refine it. Commissioner Joseph Tuman was absent and a seat on the commission is currently vacant.

For Oakland to implement the idea, voters would have to approve a ballot measure. The staff of two council members, Rebecca Kaplan and Nikki Fortunato Bas, called at last night’s committee meeting to express their support, signaling that the council could place him on the ballot in November.

But not everyone thinks that more public funding for elections is a good idea.

Scott Law, a 34-year-old Oakland resident, objected to the cost of the program and said he saw no evidence that the ZIP codes where most campaign funds currently come from are getting better service. from the city.

“There is no conspiracy in wealthy neighborhoods in Oakland to influence policy, certainly nothing that harms residents of other neighborhoods in Oakland,” Law told the commission.

Law said he thinks the problem of voter apathy could be best addressed by instituting term limits for the city council. Currently, there are none.

Arvon Perteet, chairman of the Public Ethics Commission, said he thinks something needs to be done to boost voter turnout, but he thinks the price of the dollars-for-democracy program may be too high.

“Citizens already pay a lot of taxes and don’t feel their funds are being used as well as they are,” said Perteet, the only one to vote against the idea.

He added that he was skeptical of the idea that corporations have outsized influence on Oakland politics, a theme Oakland Rising’s Suk and others mentioned at the meeting.

“Businesses definitely have more power than people,” said Michael MacDonald, a commissioner who voted in favor of the plan.

As currently written, if voters approve the Democracy Dollars Plan this fall, it would first be used in the 2024 election. The proposals contain many more details which you can read here.

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