Small Donations Would Pack Bigger Punch Under Local Election Reform

The city’s once-cutting-edge public financing system is set for a major update amid a busy year for election reform.

In less than two decades, San Francisco went from having a cutting-edge public financing system approved by voters in 2000 to one of the nation’s weakest. That could soon change, should supervisors approve a major rehaul that boosts the power of small-dollar donations.

Under the current system, candidates for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors may receive matching funds from the city, with initial spending limits up to $250,000 and to $1.5 million for mayoral candidates. The amount depends on a couple factors, but for the most part, this means candidates can receive $2 from the city for every $1 individual contribution that doesn’t surpass $500.

A proposed update put forward by Supervisor Gordon Mar would triple the maximum matching rate to 6 to 1 but it would lower the maximum contribution to $150. The spending limit would increase to $350,000 per supervisorial candidate and to $1.7 million per mayoral candidate.

(Courtesy the Budget and Legislative Analyst Office)

The goal is to disincentivize candidates from chasing big-dollar supporters and to reach more voters, which they would have more time to do by not fundraising as much.

By increasing the value of smaller donors to campaigns, the ordinance will give all candidates a better incentive to interact with a larger base of voters, including those who cannot make large political contributions,” says Patrick Ford, a senior policy analyst with the Ethics Commission. “In an era of unprecedented spending in local elections, these reforms are designed to promote more competitive campaigns and increased participation in San Francisco elections.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders helped popularize the idea of smaller donations during his 2016 presidential run. It also encourages candidates who may have community support but are lesser-known in City Hall circles to run in the first place. 

More than $8 million was spent during the June 2018 mayoral election and $7 million was spent on the November 2018 election, the most expensive local races for San Francisco. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which legalized unlimited election spending by groups independent of official campaigns, certainly hasn’t helped matters nationwide. An Ethics Commission report found that Jessica Ho, who went up against Mar in the District 4 race, had nearly $700,000 in support from third-party spending — which includes independent expenditure groups known as Super PACs.

“As a longtime community and political activist here in the city, I have become incredibly concerned about the corrupting role that money plays in our political process and beyond,” Mar tells SF Weekly. “We have to contend with these huge amounts of outside money.”

Besides the contributions proposal, Mar was also moved to update filing deadlines after lesser-known District 4 opponent and teacher Trevor McNeil was locked out of receiving public financing. After former Supervisor Katy Tang announced she would not run for reelection, on the last day to file for candidacy, the deadline was extended but confusion swirled.

Mar put forward an ordinance earlier this year, approved in May, to extend the deadline for receiving public financing to three calendar days after candidates file to run. It also updates a candidate’s expenditure ceiling in $50,000 increments instead of $10,000. The Ethics Commission has contributed to these measures while updating its procedures since 2018 to increase clarity around program rules for candidates and their treasurers.

Voters will have a say on another election reform matter in November: Proposition F, which would force political ads paid by independent groups to list the three largest donors and how much they donated. Known as Sunlight on Dark Money, the measure comes too late for hotly-contested measures like Proposition C, which Juul has spent more than $4.5 million on to overturn the city’s ban on e-cigarettes.

“Whenever there’s a good campaign reform measure on the ballot, it’s an opportunity to pay closer attention to who’s paying for all the ads they’re getting,” says Jon Golinger, an elections advocate and adjunct professor of election law at Golden Gate University who co-authored Prop. F. “It’s all too easy to not pay attention to who’s paying for something.”

Should Mar’s latest legislation pass, San Francisco would still not be ahead of the game despite it being a significant change. Baltimore is considering a 9-to-1 match rate while New York is moving toward 8 to 1. Still, San Francisco’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office says the city may have to increase the Election Campaign Fund past its roughly $7 million to accommodate the new system. But Mar says the cost is worth it.

“It’s an investment in our democracy and the relatively small amount of funding that we allocate for the public financing program, it helps to counteract the dark money and the outside money that’s been flowing into the elections,” says Mar, who also helped place Prop. F on the ballot. “Since Citizens United, we’re not able to prohibit the outside dark money from corrupting our election money but we can regulate it and we can push for stronger disclosures.”

Mar’s office is looking at other ways to strengthen local elections like exploring a democracy voucher system like Seattle’s so voters can choose which candidate to support with public money and expanding voting access. For his part, Golinger hopes to see a higher bar for candidates seeking public financing and a major overhaul of enforcement to punish pay-to-play and other government corruption.

“It’s like a whack-a-mole problem,” Golinger says. “That’s the job of ethics reform — to keep up. Every time there’s a problem, take a whack at it and not let it fester.”

The public financing legislation heads to the full board with the support of the Government of Audit Oversight Committee on Sept. 17, followed by Prop. F on the Nov. 5 ballot.

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