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Major Election Changes Land on Council Agenda

Tuesday October 14, 2003

Berkeley City Council was set to decide tonight (Tuesday, Oct. 14) whether to present voters with three controversial ballot measures—possibly as soon as next March. If passed by the electorate, the proposed measures would profoundly alter the way elections are held in the city. 

Council will consider asking voters to consider a range of election change options, including: 

* Raising the campaign contribution limit for citywide elections from its present $250 while keeping that limit for council races; 

* Requiring candidates to either pay a filing fee or collect nominating signatures; 

* Public financing of election campaigns; 

* Extending the time period between general and runoff elections from its present four weeks to as long as long as eight months; and 

* Allowing Berkeley to implement instant runoff voting (IRV) once such a system is put in place by the Alameda County Registrars Office. 

Also on the table for discussion for the 5 p.m working session was Council’s proposed March, 2004 special tax bond referendum. 

Council is scheduled to debate the election change proposals both tonight and at its Oct. 21 5 p.m. working session. 

In order to appear on the March 2004 ballot, the text of the proposed ballot measures would have to be presented to Council for review on Nov. 4 and for final vote no later than Nov. 25. Council could, however, delay putting the measures on the ballot until the November, 2004 general election, or later. 

Mayor Tom Bates originally presented the election change proposals to Council in bare bones form on May 13, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Kris Worthington and Gordon Wozniak. At Council’s request, the City Manager’s office has spent the last five months fleshing out the ideas, developing background material and working up detailed recommendations. 

In defending the idea of requiring filing fees for candidates for Berkeley office, Bates said last May that “I don’t want to keep anybody off the ballot. I just think that a candidate should be serious. The guy who ran against me [for Mayor] paid nothing, got 200 words [of his candidate statement printed in the official election pamphlet] that went out to every voter, and appeared nowhere. I think you should have to make some minor contribution.” 

Bates also said that while keeping the present system of campaign contribution limits at $250 a person favored incumbents such as himself, he said that such limits gave an unfair advantage to wealthy candidates, who could put up their own money. Bates said he also favored raising the limits “so that candidates don’t have to spend all of their time trying to raise money.” 

If passed by the voters in March, the proposals would begin implementation during the November, 2004 general election. 

If the May 13 meeting is any indication, the mayor’s election proposals will spark lively discussion over the next few weeks. Council engaged in a contentious, 30-minute debate on the matter last May, including a heated back-and-forth between an impatient Bates and a clearly frustrated Councilmember Dona Spring. 

Spring lost on a motion to table the discussion on the proposals and then led the unsuccessful opposition to including the extension of the time between general and runoff elections and the raising of campaign contribution limits. 

Spring said at the time she opposed raising the fees because of what she called the “escalating arms race” of the cost of running for office in Berkeley. Councilmember Margaret Breland also opposed raising the contribution limits, saying she believed it would lessen the political influence of low-income contributors. 

The only proposal that did not receive a no vote at the May meeting was the Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), which eliminates any possible runoffs by allowing voters to list their second (and third, and fourth, and so on) choices in the event their first choice doesn’t win. Currently, Santa Clara County, San Francisco, San Leandro, and Oakland have all amended their charters to allow IRV. 

Although Bates included the IRV proposal in his recommendations, he abstained on the IRV motion, causing Spring to question his position, shouting out, “You campaigned on supporting this! Jeez!” 

At the same May meeting, Councilmember Worthington lost 3-4 on a motion to ask city staff to explore lowering campaign contributions for City Council races. Councilmember Linda Maio lost 3-4 on a motion to explore abolishing runoff elections altogether. Councilmember Miriam Olds was not present at the May meeting.