In 2016, Berkeley residents chose to establish a system of public campaign financing by passing the Fair Elections Act. The city’s 2018 elections served as the system’s first test, and it appears to have worked exceedingly well.
Under the city’s new public financing system, candidates for city council and mayor who opt into the program can only accept donations of $50 or less from individuals. The city then matches those donations 6 to 1 (though only for Berkeley donors). In other words, a $50 donation is equivalent to $350 in campaign funds. The ultimate goal of the program is to foster community support for candidates, rather than solicit big-money donors. It also seeks to remove barriers to entry for potential candidates.
According to a recent Maplight analysis, Four city council seats were up for grabs during the 2018 election. Of the fourteen candidates running, ten chose to pursue public financing. Four of the candidates using public funds ultimately won the city council seats. More candidates ran for the open seats and more Berkeley residents donated to candidates than in years past. Public financing, which made up two-thirds of all campaign funding in the 2018 election, significantly reduced the influence of businesses, special interests, and out-of-state donors.
As one candidate put it, “In terms of impacting the election at large, I think public matching funds helped to encourage a more diverse group of candidates into the field—people that wouldn’t have been able to personally contribute a lot to their campaigns were still able to run viable campaigns because of the matching funds. This helped draw in people who worked full time, were students, or didn’t have a ton of savings to run for office.”
One council member explained that public financing allowed campaigns to focus on message over money: “[Under public financing] I was able to talk to voters a lot more. I didn’t have to talk to them about raising money, I got to talk to them about ideas.”
We’re thrilled to hear that Berkeley’s Fair Elections Act is a success. Hopefully, other cities and states will commit to creating similar election processes that value voters over money. Show your support for public financing and campaign finance reform with one of our “Money Out of Politics” stamps!