Election season feels like it’s just beginning to ramp up, but many candidates for local races have been raising money for months. 

As it has in the past, Berkeleyside plans to peel back the curtain on the city’s elections and follow the money. You can expect reporting on how much candidates are raising, who is financing campaigns and what kind of independent expenditure groups are operating behind the scenes.

Key deadlines for candidates to file their contributions and expenditures are Sep. 30 and Oct. 27. Keep an eye out for stories following those deadlines.

But before we get knee-deep in campaign finance reports, we wanted to demystify a few things about the process. Here are answers to the fundamental questions about how much money goes into local elections, who funds them and what rules govern the candidates. If you have other questions about campaign finance, let us know.

How much money goes toward local campaigns?

Donations to campaigns in Berkeley totaled $1.8 million in 2016, $1 million in 2018 and $695,000 in 2020, according to city data.

The decline in spending on local elections came as Berkeley introduced its public financing system in 2018, aiming to give candidates without deep pockets a competitive shot at getting elected to public office. The program’s cost taxpayers a little under $300,000 in both 2018 and 2020.

From 2002 to 2016, winning mayoral campaigns raised $134,000 on average, though mayoral candidates have raised upwards of $400,000 in the past, according to an analysis by the Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition. Mayor Jesse Arreguín did not use public financing during his campaign for re-election, raising $127,000 during his previous term, including $65,000 in 2020.

In 2020, winning candidates for city council raised an average of $41,000 in their 2020 races, while winning candidates for school board raised $15,000 and winning candidates for rent board raised $8,000.

Groups like unions and industry lobbies typically spend more on ballot measures, which don’t have any limitations on campaign contributions. For instance, in 2020, the firefighters association donated more money than any other group — $32,500 to support a parcel tax for wildfire preparedness.

Big-money donors often also give to independent expenditure committees that support or oppose candidates for office.

Candidates are required to disclose contributions to their campaigns and their expenditures via the city’s NetFile portal by candidate filing deadlines. You can export the contributions into a big spreadsheet, or view filings by individual candidates. Independent expenditure committees also have to report their spending.

The amount of money moving through Berkeley elections is peanuts compared with how much is raised for local races in larger cities. In San Francisco, the 2018 mayoral race alone cost $8 million.

How does public financing work?

Public financing was introduced for candidates for city council and mayor in Berkeley four years ago. This year, for the first time, candidates for auditor, school board and rent board are also eligible. 

Public financing was put on the ballot by the Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition in 2016 with the intention of undermining a system that is “set up to benefit candidates who have personal wealth or access to wealth,” Alec Saslow, a member of the group, told Berkeleyside at the time.

Candidates who participate in public financing can take contributions from individuals of up to $60 and have the contributions matched by the city 6 to 1. 

The matching funds only apply to contributions from Berkeley residents. Someone living outside of Berkeley can still donate up to $60 to a candidate accepting public financing, but that donation won’t be matched by the city.

Public financing candidates can’t accept any contributions from political action committees.  

The city will chip in a maximum of $140,000 for mayoral candidates, $47,000 for city council, $20,000 for school board and auditor, and $8,000 for rent board. (Even after that limit is reached, they can still keep collecting individual donations of up to $60.)

Some candidates have already reached their matching funds limit this year, including Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, who is seeking a second term representing district 1; Councilmember Kate Harrison, who is running unopposed for district 4; and Jennifer Shanoski, who is running for school board.

In 2020, Terry Taplin was the only candidate to win a race using public financing. But in 2018, Rashi Kesarwani, Rigel Robinson, Kate Harrison and Lori Droste all used public financing and won.

Where does the money come from?

In 2020, 70% of all funds raised for elections in Berkeley came from contributions of less than $250, according to Berkeleyside’s analysis of city data. 

The other 30% came from political action committees (PACs), from groups like unions and housing coalitions donating to ballot measures, and from the candidates themselves. 

Money from outside Berkeley plays a significant role in local races. In 2020, 48% of the contributions came from outside the city, a large amount from other parts of the Bay Area. For a point of comparison, in Oakland, 46% of campaign contributions across the 2014, 2016, and 2018 elections came from outside the city.

The 2016 analysis by Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition found that more than half the contributions to sitting council members came from less than 1% of Berkeley households. With the introduction of public financing in 2018, this may have shifted. 

In 2020, contributions of $50 or less — the individual donation limit two years ago for anyone participating in public financing — amounted to one-fifth of the total funds raised. (This number includes money raised for ballot measures, which is not subject to campaign finance limitations.)

Who are the biggest spenders?

Realtors, developers and other players in the housing industry tend to be big spenders in Berkeley elections.

In 2020, for instance, the National Association of Realtors Fund and another group with ties to a state association for landlords poured about $150,000 into independent expenditure committees supporting candidates on the Homeowners for Berkeley Rent Board slate. None of the slate’s candidates won.

And in 2016, both nonprofit and for-profit housing developers spent big on a joint campaign to pass Measure O, a $135 million affordable housing bond, and Measure P, a property transfer tax increase to fund homelessness services. Meanwhile the National Association of Realtors and another realtor group spent more than $200,000 to oppose Measure P. Both measures passed.

Unions can also be significant players. The political action committee for the union representing Berkeley firefighters spent more than $30,000 to pass Measure FF, a tax raising an estimated $8.5 million per year to fund wildfire preparedness programs. It passed. Two groups affiliated with Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents more than 500 city employees, also spent just over $11,000 to support three other ballot measures that year.

Are there any limits to contributions?

Individuals can donate a maximum of $250 to a candidate’s campaign. If a candidate participates in public financing, that limit drops down to $60. 

The exception is the candidates themselves, who can donate as much as they want to their own campaigns. In 2020, Mayor Jesse Arreguín spent $5,700 of his own money on his re-election campaign. Candidates participating in public financing can donate up to $250 to their own campaign.

Any person can donate to a campaign, including people who live outside of Berkeley.

Unions, businesses and political groups are barred from donating directly to candidates, but they can funnel their donations through campaign or independent expenditure committees. If a campaign committee donates directly to a candidate, they are subject to the same $250 contribution limit.

And remember, there are no limits to contributions for ballot measures.

How exactly do independent expenditure committees work?

The only way to avoid contribution limits to individual candidates is to make an independent expenditure. 

Anyone can make one of these expenditures, though it’s typical to set up a committee to do so. Individuals or groups can then pay for campaign ads or make other purchases to support or oppose a certain candidate, so long as they don’t coordinate with the campaign. And committees must include a disclosure on their mailings they send to voters noting that they aren’t affiliated with any candidates.

Independent expenditures aren’t bound by Berkeley’s tight contribution limits — there’s no maximum to how much can be spent on behalf of a candidate. 

During the 2020 election, independent committees spent about $225,000, mainly on races for rent board and the District 2 city council seat.

In the campaign for the West Berkeley council district, an independent committee called East Bay Working Families spent $14,430 to support then-incumbent Councilmember Cheryl Davila’s bid for re-election. Another committee backed by the California Association of Realtors spent $41,958 to oppose Davila. And a third group spent just under $20,000 to support her two opponents, Alex Sharenko and the race’s winner, Terry Taplin.

How do candidates spend the money?

Candidates spend the money they raise publicizing and running their campaign. No surprise to anyone who has come home to a stuffed mailbox in October — mailers were candidates’ biggest expense in 2020. Campaign swag, consultants and staff salaries also neared the top of the list.

Expenses are prohibited that directly benefit candidates, as distinct from their campaigns. For example, a candidate is not allowed to spend campaign contributions on the clothes they wear on the campaign trail.

What happens if someone breaks the rules?

There’s a list of rules outlined in the Berkeley Election Reform Act stipulating what candidates can and cannot do while on the campaign trail, ranging from how much money they can receive, from whom and how they can spend it.

If a candidate breaks the rules, they will go before the nine members of the Fair Campaign Practices Commission, who can issue a fine. Typically, fines have a cap of $1,000 per violation, but candidates can be fined more if the commission determines that the damages are greater.

In 2019, for example, Lori Droste was fined $750 for holding her campaign kick-off event in a vacant store on College and Ashby avenues without paying rent for the space.

Correction: A previous version of this article did not include the limit that candidates participating in public financing have on donating to their own campaign. That limit is $250.

Featured photo: Pete Rosos

The deadline to register to vote online or by mail in Alameda County is Oct. 24, and the election is Tuesday, Nov. 8. We put together a guide to the essentials of how to register and vote, what’s on the ballot, voters’ rights and more.

Here are some other helpful election resources:

See complete 2022 election coverage on Berkeleyside.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...

Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...