Delay in giving out Democracy Dollars points to bigger issues in Oakland government
on October 12, 2023
Pecolia Manigo believes her ultimate hope for Oakland — what she calls “equitable democracy” — is attainable. For evidence, she points to her own experience: Manigo was unemployed when she moved to Oakland with her infant daughter two decades ago. Now she’s the political director of Oakland Rising, an organization that helped bring to Oakland’s 2022 ballot Measure W, which passed with 74% approval from voters. The measure provides $100 “Democracy Dollars” for residents to donate to candidates in local races.
Manigo said Oakland’s democracy risks taking “a dangerous step in the wrong direction” if Measure W is not implemented by 2026. The 2026 start date, two years later than originally planned, was set by Oakland’s 2023-25 budget, which had to balance a historic $360 million deficit.
Oakland currently lacks any public campaign financing for 2024 elections. In late September, the City Council’s Rules Committee approved a proposal from the Public Ethics Commission to implement a limited public finance plan for the 2024 elections. The entire body will vote on the proposal Tuesday.
Nicolas Heidorn, executive director of the Public Ethics Commission, said that the program is revenue-neutral, meaning the commission has the funds to implement the program.
Democracy Dollars will provide four $25 vouchers to each registered voter in Oakland to contribute to local political candidates. The program is intended to create more equitable financing for local races and encourage candidates to engage with all voters.
Democracy Dollars’ proponents point to a 2020 report published by the Public Ethics Commission, which showed that fewer than 1% of Oaklanders contributed to local campaigns in the 2010s. Many contributors lived in four ZIP codes with disproportionately high numbers of white and wealthy residents. They cite the success of a similar program in Seattle that was implemented in 2017 and led to higher rates of voter participation from youth groups and communities of color.
By lowering the economic barriers to participate in city politics, Manigo said residents of historically underserved communities will learn to access more city services and lobby representatives for more programs.
“We’re not all born with emergency funds,” Manigo said.
Even those skeptical of Democracy Dollars, such as District 4 representative Janani Ramachandran, grant that it will increase voter participation. Ramachandran, who previously served on the Public Ethics Commission, said changes are needed at the state and federal level before underdog candidates will consistently have decent opportunities to win races.
Ramachandran argued that there are more pressing matters than Democracy Dollars to address in the budget, such as various department mergers. City departments are already understaffed, and Ramachandran fears more mergers will disrupt staffers’ current jobs or delay the provision of public services critical to Oaklanders.
Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said she is committed to having Democracy Dollars available for Oaklanders starting in 2026. Until then, Democracy Dollars remain on standby, and underserved communities will likely continue to ask Manigo a question she’s heard before: “How does my vote matter if I can’t contribute like folks in the hills can?”
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