Measure H on this November’s ballot provides for publicly funded elections for mayor and other city offices. Everyone seems to favor it in principle, but opponents say that they fear it is just too expensive in these days of fiscal stringency.
Other Measure H supporters have rightly pointed out that cost of publicly funded elections will really be very small—only about five dollars a resident. I would like to present another reply to the “too costly” argument. Privately funded elections also “cost” the voter; it’s just the costs come in the form of unequal voice and insider-driven policies rather than government expenditures.
The first cost of privately funded elections is a hit to democratic participation—most citizens can’t afford to be candidates. Campaigns in Berkeley are expensive; it can cost over 200,000 dollars to finance a city wide campaign. Often much of that money comes from the candidate himself or herself. But as the necessary candidate personal investment in the campaign goes up—sometimes reaching close to 50,000, dollars—the pool of potential candidates goes down. Do we want to hang an “Only the Well-To-Do Need Apply” sign on public office?.
The second cost is unequal access. Most of the funding of the campaigns come, not from the candidate, but from private contributions. These might total over 150,000 dollars for a city-wide race. Many of the people who contribute to political campaigns have business with the government. They assure us they don’t want influence, only access to have their voices heard. Unfortunately, they get disproportionate access. The leader of a civil rights group once told me that she once tried to get a meeting with the then governor to discuss a pending civil rights issue only to be told the governor’s office was only granting meetings to contributors.
Of course, Berkeley (thank God!) is not Sacramento, and nothing so unseemly would happen here. But the rules of human psychology apply in the Bay Area as much as the Sacramento Valley; one sound principle is “Be Nice to People Who Help You.” One way politicians apply this maxim is to give special “access” to contributors. That’s not necessarily corrupt, but it is undemocratic. One of the most hopeful consequences of the publicly-financed elections in Maine and Arizona has been that ordinary voters now feel they—not the contributors—own public officials.
But unequal access is not the major problem. There is also the problem of unequal influence. Access is not worth much unless it results in influence. Contributors quite properly want to influence policy. There are myriad low visibility ways in which influence can be granted. For instance, Berkeley elected officials have power to appoint citizens to important bodies like the Planning Commission and Zoning Adjustment Board. These boards in turn make policy decisions that impact financially on some contributors to Berkeley campaigns. It would be only human for a politician to be influenced in appointments to these boards by the views of the groups who provide large amounts of much needed campaign funds. But to the extent that the contributors’ views don’t mirror those of the voters it results in unequal influence on public policy. Human—yes, democratic—no.
That’s why those who know the “pay to play” system best at the national, state, and local level—people like Bill Moyers—call for publicly-funded elections. In elections like the rest of life, there’s no free lunch. You get what you pay for. Five dollars is cheap when you consider the costs of the alternative.
John Denvir teaches Constitutional Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law. He is author of Democracy’s Constitution: Claiming the Privileges of American Citizenship (Univ. of Illinois Press 2001)