Oakland's campaign finance system would be dramatically transformed if the city adopts a "democracy dollars" program. Credit: Getty Images

Currently, less than 1% of Oakland residents contribute money to candidates for City Council, mayor, school board, and other local offices, according to a city report. 

Over half of the contributions from Oakland residents funding local political campaigns come from just four zip codes, in Montclair, Rockridge, and North Oakland, areas that are mostly white and wealthier than the rest of the city.

And about half the money in Oakland elections comes from sources outside of the city.

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A 2020 report by the Public Ethics Commission, Oakland’s good government watchdog agency, explained why this is an inequitable system. “The fact that the donor class is not fully representative of Oaklanders is a problem because political giving can provide access and influence elected officials. In addition, candidates who raise the most money in campaign contributions almost always win in Oakland elections, meaning those who contribute to a candidate’s campaign—and help their choice candidate win—are the ones who actually get to choose City leaders.”

A coalition of groups calling itself the Bay Area Political Equality Collaborative, or BayPEC, wants to change this by re-writing Oakland’s campaign finance rules to encourage mass participation. 

The groups, including Oakland Rising, ACLU of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, CA Common Cause, League of Women Voters-Oakland, and MapLight presented their plan at last night’s meeting of the Public Ethics Commission, which was created in 1996 to advise the City Council on potential changes to city laws governing elections.

“We believe in hard work, building connections between electeds and constituents and accountability to the community, and not money and wallets,” Oakland Rising Executive Director Liz Suk told the commission. The coalition believes it has a plan to help fix Oakland’s campaign finance imbalances.

Every Oakland voter would get $100 in ‘democracy dollars’

The coalition’s plan, in a nutshell, is to make it possible for every Oakland voter to give money to political candidates, regardless of their income level. Here’s how it would work.

  • When local elections happen every two years, the city would set aside $4 million from the general fund for what would be called “democracy dollars.” 
  • Every eligible Oakland voter would receive $100 democracy dollars in the form of four $25 vouchers. These vouchers can be given only to candidates for City Council, mayor, auditor, city attorney, and school board. A voter could give all $100 to one candidate, or split them up between two to four candidates.
  • Candidates who get democracy dollar vouchers from Oakland voters can draw an equivalent amount from the $4 million pot of public money and spend it on advertising, polling, events, and other legitimate campaign expenses.
An example of a “democracy dollar” voucher used in Seattle elections. Credit: Screenshot of CA Common Cause presentation during PEC meeting

According to the BayPEC coalition, this would reduce the outsized power of wealthy people and interest groups in local elections and create an incentive for candidates to talk to residents who have historically been ignored during the crucial fundraising phase of elections. It would also encourage more people to vote.

The program is modeled after one implemented by Seattle a few years ago. “Seattle has seen a huge increase in small donors, donor diversity, and first-time voters,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause and a former member of Oakland’s ethics commission.

Candidates would need to qualify for democracy dollars by first receiving a set number of traditional cash contributions, ranging from 75 for school board candidates to 400 for mayor. And candidates would have to limit the total amount of money they spend on their campaign in order to get democracy dollars. School board candidates would need to stay below $75,000 while City Council candidates could spend up to $150,000, and people running for mayor could go as high as $470,000.

The program could end up injecting a significant sum of funding into elections. In the 2018 mayor’s race, for example, incumbent Mayor Libby Schaaf raised over $500,000. Her top two challengers, Cat Brooks and Pamela Price, raised $191,000 and $98,000, respectively.

In addition to the $4 million to fund the “democracy dollar” vouchers, the Public Ethics Commission would also need an estimated $1.25 million from the city to hire four new staffers and run the program, bringing the total public cost to $5.25 million every two years.

The Public Ethics Commission supports the idea—but not everyone thinks it will level the playing field

The seven-person commission voted four-to-one last night to support the democracy dollars proposal and have its staff work with the BayPEC coalition to refine it. Commissioner Joseph Tuman was absent and one seat on the commission is currently unfilled.

In order for Oakland to implement the idea, voters would need to approve a ballot measure. Staff for two councilmembers, Rebecca Kaplan and Nikki Fortunato Bas, called in to last night’s commission meeting to express their support, signaling that the council might place it on the November ballot.

But not everyone thinks greater public financing of elections is a good idea.

Scott Law, a 34-year-Oakland resident, objected to the program’s cost and said that he doesn’t see evidence that the zip codes where most campaign cash currently comes from get better services from the city.

“There is not a conspiracy in the rich sections of Oakland to influence policies, certainly nothing that damages people in other sections of Oakland,” Law told the commission.

Law said he thinks that the problem of voter apathy could be better addressed by instituting term limits for City Council. Currently, there are none.

Arvon Perteet, chair of the Public Ethics Commission, said he feels something needs to be done to boost voter participation, but he thinks the price tag of the democracy dollars program may be too high.

“Citizens pay a lot of taxes already and don’t feel like their funds are being used as well as is,” said Perteet, the sole vote against endorsing the idea.

He added that he’s skeptical of the idea that corporations have outsized influence in Oakland’s politics, a theme that Suk of Oakland Rising and others mentioned during the meeting.

“Corporations definitely have more power than people,” said Michael MacDonald, a commissioner who voted to endorse the plan.

As currently drafted, if voters approved the democracy dollars plan this fall, it would first be used during the 2024 elections. The proposals has many more details which you can read about here.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.