Leveling the local election field — Oakland will give residents vouchers to support candidates of their choice
on December 13, 2022
In last month’s election, an overwhelming majority of Oakland voters said “yes” to Measure W, a public financing program to curb big money influence in local elections and foster political participation.
The measure repeals the Limited Public Financing Act, a modest public financing program solely for City Council elections, and adopts the Fair Elections Act that will establish a “Democracy Dollars Program,” extending public financing to all city elections. Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission will implement the measure by hiring staff and creating infrastructure.
Every adult resident will receive four $25 vouchers in the mail or electronically that can be donated to the candidates of their choice. The program will make every Oakland resident a potential donor in local elections, a move toward creating a more representative electoral process by enabling all people to make campaign donations and encouraging more people to run for public office.
Oakland is expected to roll out the program in 2024. But the commission is allowed to postpone it if the infrastructure is not ready by the next election cycle.
According to official estimates, the program will cost the city about $700,000 to start up and about $1.6 million annually to run. To fund the vouchers, the City Council is required to allocate $4 million every two years from the general fund.
That does not mean all candidates would receive Democracy Dollars. Candidates must show they have some support from residents by raising hundreds of small donations of $10 at least. That number is different, depending on the office. A mayoral candidate, for example, is required to raise at least 400 small donations to qualify. Moreover, participating candidates must limit campaign expenditures — the limit for school board is $100,000, for City Council districts it’s $150,000, and for the mayor it’s $500,000. And they must participate
in public debates. In addition, no more than two-thirds of their spending limit can come from Democracy Dollars.
Residents should donate early, before their candidates have raised their quotas.
Council member Dan Kalb , lead author of a resolution that got Measure W on the ballot , says it could reduce the influence of large private donars, incentivize candidates to go to all constituents, and increase voter turnout.
“Being able to get elected is dependent in part on being able to raise money,” Kalb says.
A 2020 report by MapLight, a nonprofit that tracks money influence in politics, showed 77% of the contested races in Oakland were won by the candidate who raised the most money.
City reports show that fewer than 1% of voting-age residents contribute to campaigns. According to the Oakland Public Ethics Commission, a large portion of contributions comes from deep-pocketed donors. Data from MapLight shows that only 6% of election financing in the city is in the form of donations smaller than $100. And nearly half of donations come from outside of the city.
There also are racial and economic disparities. Over half of all contributions from Oakland residents come from four ZIP codes comprising wealthier, whiter communities. Low-income communities and communities of color typically are left out of election financing.
“This is not unusual,” Kalb said. “Other cities have the same dynamics, but it’s a problem.”
Kalb believes that Democracy Dollars will encourage candidates to approach a large number of residents who were traditionally overlooked.
“Democracy Dollars incentivizes candidates for office to speak to and interact with everybody in the district, not just the people who have lots of money,” he said.
Rachel Beck, a self-employed writing coach from Oakland who has voted since she was 18, believes the current campaign financing system encourages candidates to ignore residents and under-represents the city as a whole.
“If the Democracy Dollars program results in more candidates reaching out to voters who haven’t voted in every election, I think we all benefit,” Beck said.
Some Oakland residents who said “no” to measure W are skeptical about the unproven program. They believe it would cut money from already underfunded priorities in the city.
“Oakland has to get back to saving lives, getting housing done, and basic services before it gets into experimental things,” said Hugh Morrison, a self-employed Oakland resident who voted against the measure.
Oakland is the second city in the country to embrace the program. The first was Seattle, which approved a voucher program in 2015 that has been used in three election cycles
Groups in Los Angeles and San Diego are now campaigning to bring Democracy Dollars to their cities.
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