A Guide to Campaign Finance in Berkeley


Election season appears to be just getting started, but many candidates in local races have been fundraising for months.

As in the past, Berkeleyside plans to pull back the curtain on the city’s election and follow the money. You can expect reports on how much candidates are raising, who is funding campaigns, and what kind of independent spending groups are operating behind the scenes.

The main deadlines for candidates to deposit their contributions and expenses are September 30 and October 27. Keep an eye out for stories after these deadlines.

But before we go knee-deep in campaign finance reporting, we wanted to demystify some things about the process. Here are the answers to basic questions about how much money goes into local elections, who funds them, and what rules govern candidates. If you have any further questions about campaign finance, let us know.

A Guide to Campaign Finance in Berkeley

How much money goes to local campaigns?

Campaign donations in Berkeley totaled $1.8 million in 2016, $1 million in 2018 and $695,000 in 2020, according to city data.

The drop in local election spending came when Berkeley introduced its public funding system in 2018, aimed at giving candidates without deep pockets a competitive shot at being elected to public office. The program cost taxpayers just under $300,000 in 2018 and 2020.

From 2002 to 2016, winning mayoral campaigns raised an average of $134,000, although mayoral candidates have raised more than $400,000 in the past, according to analysis by the Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition. In 2020, even though Mayor Jesse Arreguín did not use public funding, he only raised $65,000 while campaigning for re-election.

In 2020, winning city council candidates raised an average of $41,000 in their 2020 races, while winning school board candidates raised $15,000 and winning rent board candidates raised $8,000.

Groups like unions and industry lobbies typically spend more on ballot measures, which have no limits on campaign contributions. For example, in 2020, the firefighters association donated more money than any other group – $32,500 to support a package tax for wildfire preparedness.

Large donors often also donate to independent spending committees that support or oppose electoral contestants.

Candidates are required to disclose their campaign contributions and expenses through the NetFile Portal by the deadlines for submitting applications. You can export contributions to a large spreadsheet or view individual candidate submissions. Independent spending commissions must also report on their spending.

The amount of money that passes through the elections in Berkeley is paltry compared to the amount raised for local races in the big cities. In San Francisco, the 2018 mayoral race alone cost $8 million.

How does public funding work?

Public funding was introduced for Berkeley City Council and mayoral candidates four years ago. This year, for the first time, candidates for the positions of auditor, school board and rent commission are also eligible.

Public funding was put on the ballot by the Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition in 2016 in an effort to undermine a system that is “set up to benefit candidates who have personal wealth or access to wealth”, a said band member Alec Saslow. Berkeley at the time.

Candidates who participate in public funding can receive contributions from individuals up to $60 and see the contributions matched by the city 6 to 1.

Matching funds only apply to contributions from Berkeley residents. A person living outside of Berkeley can still donate up to $60 to a candidate accepting public funding, but that donation will not be matched by the city.

Applicants for public funding cannot accept any contributions from political action committees.

The city will pay a maximum of $140,000 for mayoral candidates, $47,000 for the city council, $20,000 for the school board and auditor and $8,000 for the rent board. (Even after that limit is reached, they can continue to collect individual donations up to $60.)

Some candidates have already reached their matching funds limit this year, including Kate Harrison, who is running unopposed for District 4 and Jennifer Shanoski, who is running for the school board.

In 2020, Terry Taplin was the only contestant to win a publicly funded race. But in 2018, Rashi Kesarwani, Rigel Robinson, Kate Harrison and Lori Droste all used public funding and won.

Where does the money come from?

In 2020, 70% of all funds raised for elections in Berkeley came from contributions under $250, according to Berkeleyside’s analysis of city data.

The remaining 30% came from political action committees (PACs), groups like unions and housing coalitions that donated to ballot measures, and from the candidates themselves.

Money from outside Berkeley plays an important role in local races. In 2020, 48% of contributions came from out of town, much of it from other parts of the Bay Area. By comparison, in Oakland, 46% of campaign contributions in 2014, 2016 and 2018 came from out of town.

The Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition’s 2016 analysis found that more than half of incumbent council member contributions came from less than 1% of Berkeley households. With the introduction of public funding in 2018, this may have changed.

In 2020, contributions of $50 or less — the individual donation limit two years ago for anyone participating in public funding — accounted for one-fifth of total funds raised. (This number includes money raised for ballot measures, which is not subject to campaign finance limits.)

Who are the biggest spenders?

Realtors, developers and others in the housing industry tend to be big spenders in Berkeley elections.

In 2020, for example, the National Association of Realtors Fund and another group tied to a state association for homeowners contributed about $150,000 to independent spending committees supporting candidates on the Berkeley Rent Board homeowners list. . None of the candidates on the list won.

And in 2016, nonprofit and for-profit housing developers spent big on a joint campaign to pass Measure O, a $135 million affordable housing bond, and Measure P, an increase property transfer taxes to fund homeless services. Meanwhile, the National Association of Realtors and another group of realtors spent over $200,000 opposing Measure P. Both measures passed.

Unions can also be important actors. The union’s political action committee representing Berkeley firefighters spent more than $30,000 to pass Measure FF, a tax that raises about $8.5 million a year to fund wildfire preparedness programs. This happened. Two groups affiliated with Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents more than 500 city workers, also spent just over $11,000 supporting three other ballot measures that year.

Are there any limits on contributions?

Individuals can donate a maximum of $250 to a candidate’s campaign. If a candidate participates in public funding, this limit drops to $60.

The exception is the candidates themselves, who can donate as much as they want to their own campaigns. In 2020, Mayor Jesse Arreguín spent $5,700 of his own money on his re-election campaign.

Anyone can donate to a campaign, including people who live outside of Berkeley.

Unions, businesses and political groups are not allowed to donate directly to candidates, but they can channel their donations through campaign commissions or independent spending. If a campaign committee makes a donation directly to a candidate, it is subject to the same $250 contribution limit.

And remember, there are no contribution limits for ballot metrics.

How exactly do Independent Spending Committees work?

The only way to avoid contribution limits to individual candidates is to spend independently.

Anyone can incur any of these expenses, although it is common to set up a committee to do so. Individuals or groups can then pay for campaign ads or make other purchases to support or oppose a certain candidate, as long as they do not coordinate with the campaign. And committees must include a disclosure on their mailings they send to voters noting that they are not affiliated with any candidate.

Independent spending isn’t bound by Berkeley’s strict contribution limits — there’s no maximum to the amount that can be spent on a candidate’s behalf.

In the 2020 election, Independent Committees spent about $225,000, mostly on the Rent Racing Board and the District 2 City Council headquarters.

During the campaign for the West Berkeley council district, an independent committee called East Bay Working Families spent $14,430 supporting then-incumbent council member Cheryl Davila’s candidacy for re-election. Another committee supported by the California Association of Realtors spent $41,958 to oppose Davila. And a third group spent just under $20,000 supporting their two opponents, Alex Sharenko and race winner Terry Taplin.

How do candidates spend the money?

Candidates spend the money they raise to publicize and run their campaign. No surprise for anyone who returned home with a stuffed mailbox in October – mailers were the candidates’ biggest expense in 2020. Campaign swag, consultants and staff salaries were also nearing the top of the list.

Spending that directly benefits candidates, as opposed to their campaigns, is prohibited. For example, a candidate is not allowed to spend campaign contributions on clothing that he wears during the election campaign.

What happens if someone breaks the rules?

There is a list of rules described in the Berkeley Electoral Reform Act stipulating what candidates can and cannot do during the election campaign, ranging from how much money they can receive, from whom and how they can spend it.

If a candidate breaks the rules, they will go before the nine-member Fair Campaign Practices Commission, who can issue a fine. Typically, fines are capped at $1,000 per violation, but contestants can be fined more if the commission determines the damages are greater.

In 2019, for example, Lori Droste was fined $750 for hosting her campaign kick-off event in a vacant store on College and Ashby avenues without paying rent for the space.


Featured photo: Pete Rosos

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