During an Oakland Public Ethics Commission meeting on Wednesday, a proposed ballot measure was put forward to create a program giving all Oakland voters $100 to spend on political contributions for major city offices.
According to a MapLight study, half of all Oakland campaign funds, or around $2.5 million, comes from sources outside the city. And half that city residents donate, around $1.25 million, comes 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.
Presenting the Fair Elections Act on Wednesday was the Bay Area Political Equality Collaborative (BayPEC). The BayPEC, comprised of several activist and voting groups including the ACLU, League of Women Voters, Oakland Rising, CA Common Cause, and others, noted that Oakland campaign funds largely come out of the city.
BayPEC said on Wednesday that this needs to change, and followed Seattle’s Democracy Dollars program closely in writing their own proposal.
According to the proposal, known as the Oakland Fair Elections Act, $4 million from the city’s general would be set aside as “Democracy Dollars” every 2 years for city elections. 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 DD 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 those for the School Board at $75,000.
Finally, the Public Ethics Commission would 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.
“Seattle has seen a huge increase in small donors, donor diversity, and first-time voters,” said CA Common Cause executive director Jonathan Mehta Stein on Wednesday.
A Question of Democracy Dollars, high costs
According to proponents, the Oakland Democracy Dollars would “level the playing field” and would contribute dollars to proven candidates while also reigning in excessive campaign donations given in the past, with BayPEC pointing out specifically how Mayor Libby Schaaf raised over $500,000 in the 2018 Mayoral race while other challengers couldn’t crack the $200,000 mark.
While some noted interest on Wednesday, the proposal was met with harsh backlash, with many appalled by the idea of public financing of elections, the $5.25 million price tag, and the ethics behind the “ethical” decision.
“Democracy Dollars would not balance things out in the least,” explained resident and legal advisor Leon Shaw to the Globe on Thursday. “And it leaves a lot of room for abuse. Who monitors how the funds are spent? How do we know that these campaign funds aren’t simply given to close friends and others as ‘campaign costs’ or ‘event planning?’ You can see a million ways this can go wrong. A lot of people are simply hurt that their candidates aren’t getting in because they haven’t been able to pull in donors or compete, so they try something like this. It’s crazy that people are even considering this.”
Commission members had a more mixed reaction on Wednesday. Commissioners questioned why corporations had too much power in elections, and like many detractors, balked at the high cost of the program.
“Citizens pay a lot of taxes already and don’t feel like their funds are being used as well as is,” said Commission chairman Arvon Perteet. “I’m skeptical of the idea that corporations have outsized influence in Oakland’s politics.”
The Commission wound up eventually endorsing the Democracy Dollars program on Wednesday, leading the draft to continue making its way to the November election later this year to be decided on by voters. If passed, Oakland Democracy Dollars would first be used in the 2024 elections.
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