Opinion: Publicly funded elections give Berkeley voters greater voice in 2018

The Berkeley Fair Elections Act aims to reduce the undue influence of wealthy political donors and empower broader political participation

At first glance, the 2018 City Council elections in Berkeley may appear similar to previous elections. Multiple candidates will square off to outline a vision for Berkeley’s future, grapple with tough questions related to affordable housing, schools, crime and policing and more, and make their pitch to voters. But this year, Berkeley residents have a new tool to make their voices heard and limit the influence of big money donors.

That’s because 2018 will mark the first year of the Berkeley Fair Elections program, which passed by ballot initiative in 2016 with 65% support from voters. By providing public matching funds to candidates who rely on small donations, the program empowers leaders without deep pockets or wealthy networks to run for office and encourages candidates to run grassroots campaigns, ensuring that they truly represent their communities once elected.

So far, 12 candidates are vying for City Council seats in districts 1, 4, 7 and 8, and six of the 12 have already signaled their intent to use the Fair Elections program.

Here’s how it works: Participating candidates may only take donations of $50 or less, as opposed to the $250 limit for non-participating candidates. These small contributions are then matched six to one with public money from a new “Fair Elections” fund. For example, a contribution of $10 from a Berkeley resident to a participating candidate gets matched with $60 from the city, becoming worth $70 to the candidate. Ultimately, that means more power for small donors who can’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars on politics. It also means candidates will be less focused on tracking down big money donors to support their campaigns.

In order to qualify for public funds, candidates must meet a threshold number of small donations, demonstrating that they have significant local support. The amount of funding they can receive from the city is capped at $40,000 for City Council candidates and $120,000 for mayoral candidates.

Money influences who can afford to run for office, who they talk to during their campaigns, who wins and who they listen to once in power. When the 2016 coalition for Measure X1 (including several volunteers from MapLight’s staff) followed the money in Berkeley elections, they found that more than half of the funding that candidates received in the 2012 and 2014 elections came from fewer than 350 households – less than 1% of Berkeley. On average, winning City Council candidates received 60% of their funding from donors giving the maximum of $250, while previous mayor Tom Bates received 70% of his contributions from donors who maxed out.

The Fair Elections program enables candidates to run on the strength of their community support, regardless of their finances or connections. It encourages participating candidates to spend time speaking with all of their voters, not just the ones who can cut large checks. And it means that lawmakers who win under this system are more likely to listen to all of their constituents and not just their wealthiest supporters.

The Fair Elections program doesn’t increase taxes; it’s funded by an allocation of about $500,000 per year from the city’s General Fund. That’s 0.14% of Berkeley’s operating budget for 2018.

As the 2018 election unfolds, the Berkeley Fair Elections program offers a renewed chance for Berkeley residents to get engaged and for local leaders with community support to run for office using the program. That’s an important improvement for local democracy—and one Berkeley residents can take pride in.

To learn more about the Berkeley Fair Elections Act, check out this guide from the city.

Hamsini Sridharan is the program director at MapLight, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics and works to reform our democracy at every level of government. She recently served on the Berkeley Fair Campaign Practices Commission.