I believe most community members are unaware of the changes that have transformed local campaign financing in recent years. My hope is that this op-ed will serve as an impetus for members of our community to advocate for much needed reforms.
As a former Palo Alto City Council and Board of Education member and an adviser to numerous candidates, I have direct experience in local campaign finance and strategies. During the past decade, I have witnessed alarming changes in the ways in which City Council campaigns are funded.
Running for City Council in Palo Alto (population 68,572) costs far more than in cities of equivalent or larger size and is dominated by large donations from a very small number of donors. Between 2014 and 2020, campaign expenditures made by winning City Council candidates increased 66%, from $40,000 to $66,620.
Raising large sums of money is now viewed by many candidates as essential for success. I disagree.
After speaking with many potential City Council candidates, I have learned that the arms race in local campaign spending deters "ordinary citizens" from running. As a successful candidate, I know that the ability to market yourself and your ideas is essential. But in a city the size of Palo Alto, candidates should not feel compelled to build a formidable campaign cache. For decades, candidates have been successful with low-cost strategies — knocking on doors, meeting with voters to understand their concerns and educating themselves about local issues.
I am also concerned about the significant proportion of outsized donations going to council candidates. For example, in 2020, 20 donors, each giving more than $3,500, represented nearly one-third of all donations received. Some individuals donated as much as $10,000.
In the elections between 2014 and 2018, the top 25 contributors gave one-third of the money raised by all candidates. These large donations create the actual or perceived risk that a candidate will feel indebted to their large donors and will not exercise impartial judgment on matters affecting those donors.
A related concern is that outside groups are spending thousands of dollars each election cycle to stuff our mailboxes with glossy ads supporting local candidates; yet, in most cases, we have no idea who paid for these ads and thus are unaware of the connection between the ad's funders and the candidate they support.
Concerns about these issues led to the convening of a local campaign finance reform task force under the aegis of the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto. The task force has been meeting since early 2021, soliciting input from Common Cause and the California Clean Money Campaign. Its recommendations, summarized below, are not radical, and many neighboring communities, such as Mountain View, Cupertino, and Santa Clara, have adopted similar reforms.
The first recommendation is that candidates voluntarily limit campaign spending to $30,000. While mandatory spending limits are not enforceable, cities can offer incentives to encourage candidates to voluntarily adopt these limits. Mountain View adopted voluntary campaign spending limits in 2000. Since then, all candidates have chosen to accept the limit, currently set at $27,400, indexed for inflation.
As an incentive for candidates to accept voluntary spending limits, some cities partially subsidize the cost of the candidate statement published by the Registrar of Voters, which can exceed $4,000. Other cities reward candidates who agree to the spending limits with much higher individual donation limits than those who reject the limits. Whether candidates agree or reject the limits is published on the city's website. Violations of the limits are also published in newspapers and on the city's website.
One city that enacted spending limits noted in its municipal code that if candidates knew that other candidates were willing to limit their expenditures, it may attract additional candidates and allow all candidates and officeholders to spend less time fundraising and more time communicating issues of importance to voters and constituents.
The task force also recommends mandatory individual donation limits of $250 for council candidates who do not accept voluntary expenditure limits and mandatory individual donation limits of $500 for those who do. Limiting individual donations helps ensure that candidates do not rely on a few wealthy donors to finance their campaigns and compels candidates to build a broader base of smaller and often more diverse donors.
Currently Palo Alto candidates may receive donations up to the state donation limit of $4,900. California cities may adopt lower limits; the average limit is $438 in cities with populations under 100,000 that have adopted donation limits.
Finally, the task force recommends increased disclosure on political ads made by outside groups. The Citizens United ruling makes it legal for unlimited amounts of "dark money" to flow through independent expenditure committees on behalf of a candidate as long as those committees don't coordinate directly with the candidate. Although cities can't limit funds spent on political ads made by outside groups, it is possible to strengthen disclosure requirements, so we know who is influencing elections.
These reforms will help combat the appearance of undue influence, enhance political engagement for all citizens, including those with diverse backgrounds and means, and still allow candidates sufficient opportunities to get their messages out.
Based on conversations with local voters and candidates, I have found widespread support for these suggested reforms, which have also been distributed to the City Council with a request to enact them in time for the 2022 election.
If you support adopting these local campaign finance reform measures, please contact City Council members. This is an unprecedented opportunity to establish a more inclusive and democratic political climate in our community. I hope you concur.