Opinion: Berkeley expands Fair Elections funding to more candidates

The City Council expanded the program to cover candidates for Auditor, School Board Director, and Rent Stabilization Board Commissioner.

Nationally, our democracy is on the defensive, with voter suppression, unlimited money in politics, and other attacks. Here in Berkeley, though, the City Council took action to strengthen our democracy that’s cause for celebration and should make all Berkeley residents proud.

In a unanimous vote, the City Council expanded Berkeley’s Fair Elections program to cover candidates for Auditor, School Board Director, and Rent Stabilization Board Commissioner. The program continues to cover candidates for City Council and Mayor. Now candidates for any city office who pledge to accept no more than $50 per person are rewarded with $6 of public funding for every $1 raised from everyday Berkeley residents. So a donor who can afford to give $10 — but not hundreds — has a larger impact on the campaign. It also means that candidates who don’t have access to wealthy donors can successfully fund their campaigns with small contributions.

Berkeley’s original Fair Elections began in 2016 after voters approved a ballot measure with 65 percent of the vote — opening the door to public funding for candidates running for Mayor and City Council. The program has been a tremendous success, with 20 candidates using public funding to support their campaigns and the influence of mega-donors far limited compared to other cities across the country.

Other cities and states are working to emulate the model Berkeley helped to pioneer. Just down the street in Oakland, citizen groups are pushing the City Council to adopt a similar program. A new MapLight report shows that in Oakland:

  • Nearly half of all fundraising in the four candidate elections came from high-dollar donors. People giving $500 or more, including candidates contributing to their own campaigns, contributed 45 percent of all funds taken in by candidates’ campaigns.
  • Less affluent and less white neighborhoods were underrepresented in campaign contributions. A quarter of the money raised from Oakland residents came from the six Oakland Zip codes with a median household income below $60,000, while nearly half of Oakland residents live in these neighborhoods. The four Oakland Zip codes with less than 25 percent white residents were responsible for 16 percent of the money from Oakland donors while containing 40 percent of Oakland’s population. 
  • Just half of all fundraising by candidates came from Oakland residents. Even after including donations from candidates to their own campaigns and public funds, city residents provided just half of the funds received.

An accountable, representative government must include candidates that truly represent the public interest and have the ability to run viable campaigns without access to wealth. Expanding the public funding program to more positions in Berkeley government is a significant victory for our democracy — one that could spread to Oakland as well.

Daniel G. Newman is a leader of the Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition, which worked to implement Berkeley’s original public funding of elections program with support from ACLU of Northern California, Bay Rising, California Common Cause, and MapLight. He is also President and Co-Founder of MapLight, a Berkely-based nonprofit that creates civic technology to improve democracy and advance the public interest. To get involved in bringing Fair Elections to Oakland, visit https://fairelectionsoakland.org/