A ballot measure in Oakland to give all voting-age residents in the city $100 to spend on political contributions for major city offices every two years continued to move towards implementation this week following its passage last month.
For the last several years, groups such as Fair Elections Oakland and the Bay Area Political Equality Collaborative (BayPEC), with the later being comprised of several activist and voting groups including the ACLU, League of Women Voters, Oakland Rising, and CA Common Cause, have noted that very little of the total amount of campaign contributions given to city candidates came from voters in Oakland. One study found that half of all Oakland campaign funds, or around $2.5 million, came from sources outside the city. Even more, half of what city residents do donate, around $1.25 million, came from only a few zip codes in the city that are in the most wealthy areas like North Oakland, Rockridge, and Montclair. In total, less than 1% of all Oakland voters end up contributing money.
Wanting a fairer system, and inspired by a system in Seattle that came into law in 2017 that gave city funds to residents as “Democracy Dollars” to go to candidates running in city elections, the groups put together a proposed program of their own. Put forward in April of this year, the groups proposed the Fair Elections Act, which would require the city to set aside $4 million every two years from the city’s general fund for “Democracy Dollars”. Every Oakland voter would receive four $25 vouchers that can only be given to city-level candidates for Mayor, City Council, City Attorney, Auditor, and School Board. The voters can decide how to spend the money, ranging from giving all four vouchers to one candidate, to all four going to four different candidates.
In turn, candidates who get the vouchers can then only spend the money on campaign expenses, including advertising, event set up, and other traditional campaign costs. However, all candidates would have to be certified to receive funds beforehand, with candidates having need to meet minimum qualifying contributions in order to receive Democracy Dollars funds. Mayoral candidates would need to have at least 400 qualifying donations coming in first, with City Council members, Auditors, and Attorneys needing 150, District Council members needing 125, and School Board members needing 75.
Caps on Democracy Dollar donations will also be instituted for candidates, including $400,000 at the Mayoral level, $150,000 for City Council members/Auditors/Attorneys, $100,000 for District City Council members, $50,000 for School board members and $10,000 for those running unopposed.
However, a cap on incoming non-Democracy Dollars donations would be instituted in order to receive the funds. Mayoral Candidates would be set at $470,000, City Council members/Auditors/Attorneys at $200,000, District City Council members at $150,000, and School Board at $75,000. In addition, the Public Ethics Commission will need $1.25 million to hire people and run the program, bringing a final cost to taxpayers in Oakland to $5.25 million every two years.
Measure W passes in Oakland
The city finally approved the measure to go on the ballot in November, placing it there as Measure W. Proponents pointed out that the measure helps give residents a choice in candidate support, and forces candidates to meet more locally with residents to receive additional campaign funds. In addition, proponents also added that it gave further incentives to candidates to focus more on issues affecting residents to a large degree, such as affordable housing.
“We deserve a government that prioritizes the needs of Oakland residents, rather than wealthy special interests,” said Fair Elections Oakland earlier this year. “We need to know that our local elected officials are fighting for us—that they’re working to create affordable housing, improve our schools, and keep the streets safe—instead of helping out their wealthy campaign funders.”
Maplight President Daniel Newman also noted, “We’re seeking to help candidates run for office and win, who would be great elected officials but don’t have access to wealth. If you want to run for office in the U.S., one of the first questions that people ask you is not what’s your experience [or] what’s your community support—but, how much money will you raise?”
Opponents to Measure W pointed out that despite $4 million going into the hands of residents to spend on candidates, millions more could still be raised by outside groups and other residents, making the the whole Measure a waste on taxpayer money and taking away from grassroots groups and other organizations known for helping candidates who had been out funded win in local elections.
“Measure W just ignored what really goes into successful races,” Damon Keyes, an Oakland neighborhood activist who focused on signing residents up to vote this election, told the Globe on Thursday. “I’m happy that candidates who otherwise would not have gotten funds will get it now of course, but they really focused on the money that won elections, and ignored the grassroots efforts and local activists and voters who came together without one cent through meetups and social media. On the local level, that kind of support is valuable. You can’t put a dollar value, or funding value, on everything, no matter how much they are trying with this.”
“And it’s ridiculous because this is just us donating with an extra step in between now. These vouchers come from the general fund, which is taxes.”
Supporters of the measure overwhelmingly outnumbered opponents throughout the race, and on election day, made it a landslide victory for Measure W. It passed 91,112 to 32,180 votes, or 74% to 26%. For the last several weeks, Oakland has begun to put the system into place for the next city elections, with implementation continuing this month.
“We’ll see what it does here,” added Keyes. “People are hopeful that it brings change and gives support to the little guys. People are optimistic. But that’s $ millions. Think of how many people that could have fed or housed here. There’s a lot of other problems in Oakland.”
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