Can San Jose have publicly-financed elections?
A voter drops off ballots in a neighborhood ballot drop box. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

The promise to get money out of politics has propelled several San Jose politicos to office. Actually implementing corporate-free elections is tougher.

Councilmembers and local activists are pushing for a way to level the playing field for contributions through publicly-financed elections. In that system, the local government provides each registered voter with a voucher to spend on any candidate of their choice. The idea is it encourages participation from everyday residents and reduces reliance on corporate or wealthy donors.

Supporters say it increases voter engagement and limits influence from special interests. Opponents worry the vouchers are sent early and could be used on incumbents before challengers join a race.

“I’ve talked to too many people who didn’t know where to look for who was funding what and where it was coming from,” said Jake Tonkel, who ran for San Jose City Council in District 6 last year. The millennial biomedical worker lost a closer-than-expected council election to incumbent Councilmember Dev Davis in November. Political action committees and corporate donors, who peddled racist campaign ads and misinformation, pumped millions of dollars into the race, making it one of the most expensive council races in the city’s history.

Seattle is the first city in the nation to launch the voucher program and offers a template for how publicly-financed elections could work in San Jose. According to a 2019 Georgetown University study on Seattle’s public model, the city’s voucher program saw more small donors—nearly double the number of donations from 2017 before the program began—and more donors across all demographics.

“The findings from cities that have implemented robust public-finance systems are incredibly inspiring,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, director of Common Cause California, a watchdog group that advocates for government reform at the local, state and federal levels. “You end up with a way more diverse donor pool that looks like your city.”

In a publicly-financed election, campaigns must adhere to strict rules in spending vouchers and can’t use the money for personal expenses or to donate to other contests. Candidates can also opt out of the system.

San Jose Councilmember Sergio Jimenez pushed for publicly-financed elections in the city last month as part of campaign finance reform discussions in the wake of last year’s divisive election cycle.

“Not everyone can run for office. It takes a lot of money,” Jimenez told San José Spotlight. “I don’t think it’s far-fetched that the residents would think that some sort of way to publicly finance elections would be helpful.”

It’s not clear how San Jose would fund a publicly-financed election system—other locations use property taxes—but Jimenez said he’s open to a pilot program.

While some of Jimenez’s colleagues, including Mayor Sam Liccardo, expressed hesitancy about spending taxpayer dollars on elections—which Liccardo speculated could take away from funding some city services—Jimenez believes a publicly-financed system will ensure a more diverse candidate field and result in greater representation.

Hesitancy about using public dollars is a problem that Stein and advocates don’t deny.

“When cities have really urgent needs around housing or infrastructure, it’s hard for policymakers to justify to the public that we’re going to give public money to politicians to run their campaigns,” Stein said.

But the bigger problem, he said, is corporate money in elections, which could justify doing away with the city’s current, non-public system.

“People in power know how to run and win under the existing system,” Stein said. “They don’t have an incentive to replace that system with a new, more accessible, more inclusive system.”

Publicly-funded elections can take different forms. For example, Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program empowers a city commission to distribute four $25 vouchers to each registered voter in the city at the beginning of an election calendar year. Residents fill out the name of the candidate they want to support and send the voucher back in the mail.

Los Angeles and San Francisco use a “matching” system, where residents’ contributions are matched six to one. That means a $10 contribution to a City Council or mayoral candidate is matched to $60 by the city, and the candidate receives $70.

“Public financing breaks down barriers of entry into running for public office, providing the opportunity for more nontraditional candidates like women and people of color to participate,” Assemblymember Alex Lee said in a statement to San José Spotlight. “It also allows for more people to run for office who aren’t independently wealthy or depend on the wealth of corporate special interests.”

Since taking office in December, Lee’s had a tougher time convincing his Democratic colleagues that leaving corporate money behind is the answer. Lee’s bill that would have banned corporate donations went down in flames in the Democratically-controlled Assembly earlier this week.

That points back to the problem with corporate money, Stein and Tonkel said.

“Oftentimes raising money is more important to candidates than talking to potential constituents and learning from the community,” Tonkel said. “That erodes the trust we have in those who get elected.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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