New Report: Publicly Funded Campaigns Can Dilute Big Money’s Influence on California’s Politics

California Common Cause provides two keys to reforming how campaigns are funded

Sacramento, CA “Matching funds” programs and democracy dollars, two approaches to public financing of campaigns, can be keys to breaking big money’s grip on state politics and lifting up the voices of regular Californians, according to a new report released today by California Common Cause. The report, “The California Dream,” is a step-by-step guide for policymakers, activists, and researchers to implement publicly financed elections.

“The California Dream of an inclusive, multi-racial democracy where everyone has influence — not just the wealthy and well-connected — requires addressing money in our politics,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause. “Today, wealthy special interests too often make the rules, set the agenda, and drown out the voices of the people. The dual reforms in our report can amplify the role of everyday Californians in our democracy and make it possible for more women, people of color, and those of modest means to run and get elected to public office.” 

Key findings show how California’s campaign finance system rewards outsized influence to wealthy donors, with special interests pumping more than $31 million into Assembly and Senate campaigns in 2020. Using existing research and interviews with campaign finance reform experts, program administrators, political consultants, and candidates, the report outlines how publicly financed campaigns, either a matching funds program or a democracy dollars program, can transfer power away from the special interests and back into the hands of the people.

“A more inclusive democracy is not only possible, but it is within reach,” said Laurel Brodzinsky, California Common Cause’s legislative director. “This report provides the evidence and the tools for how California can create meaningful change and take action towards diminishing the influence of special interests.”

Extrapolating from data offered by cities that use the two reforms examined, the report describes how reforming matching funds programs and democracy dollars programs can help lead to California legislative elections that boast dramatically more small-dollar donors (4–5 X over current rate), greater donor diversity, and a broader range of people running for office. 

“The size of your wallet shouldn’t determine the strength of your voice,” said Noah Cole, report author and policy analyst. “But our report found just how imbalanced our campaign finance system is — and it’s no coincidence that the largest bidders in our political system are the ones blocking progress on the issues we care about most. Our report lays out why California urgently needs to reform our campaign system and how we can restore the balance of power in our elections.” 

This analysis comes just months after voters in Oakland, California overwhelmingly voted in favor of a democracy voucher program known as “democracy dollars.” Oakland is the second city in the nation to enact a voucher-based public financing program.

Key highlights include: 

  • In 2020, special interests pumped more than $31 million into backing candidates for California Assembly and Senate. The top 3 special interest groups are the oil lobby, prison lobby, and health care lobby.
  • Despite progress, the California state legislature still does not reflect the diversity of California’s population. The high cost of running for state offices in California likely contributes to this problem. It costs roughly $1 million to run and win a California Assembly seat and $1.7 million to run and win a State Senate seat.
  • Implementing a matching funds program or a democracy dollars program is estimated to grow the number of small donors to California legislative candidates 4X-5X.
  • Implementing a matching funds program or a democracy dollars program is estimated to increase the number of people who run for office, with particular increases possible among women and people of color, because of the reduced financial barriers to running.

The report recommends:

  • California adopt a pilot public financing program for state elections through:
    • A matching funds program; or
    • A democracy voucher program 
  • California prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in the policy development and implementation process to ensure that Black, brown, low-income, and underrepresented communities are engaged in the program. 

Read The California Dream here.

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