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Ban on citizen-funded elections means more special-interest money in politics

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In his column “Public campaign financing should require voter approval” (Capitol & California, Jan. 8), Dan Walters called citizen-funded elections “unproven.” But the facts tell a different story.

Seven charter cities in California currently have citizen-funded election laws, also known as public campaign financing. Los Angeles adopted its program in 1990, and Berkeley most recently followed suit in November. These cities have been laboratories of democracy and allow us to evaluate how the idea has worked in reality – in Los Angeles, with more than 25 years of experience.

Ask former L.A. council member Ed Reyes whether that city’s program is “nothing more than feel-good symbolism,” as Walters put it. “My first term, I was not part of the machine – I was from the outside looking in,” Reyes told the Brennan Center for Justice. “The public financing system gave me the opportunity to compete and hold my own and raise the questions and issues important to the people in the community.”

Or ask Richmond council member Jovanka Beckles, whose city adopted a citizen-funded elections program in 2003. “When you take the money from the public, you are beholden to the public only, and not any other corporate interest,” she said. “Knowing that public financing was an option for my campaign was one of the factors that influenced my decision to enter the race.”

Those cities’ programs exist only because of a hard-fought legal victory in 1992. Quentin Kopp and his allies challenged Los Angeles’ right to decide for itself in creating its citizen-funded elections program. The city, supported by San Francisco and Common Cause, stood up for local autonomy – and won.

The California Supreme Court said, “It seems obvious that public money reduces rather than increases the fundraising pressures on public office seekers and thereby reduces the undue influence of special interest groups.”

Senate Bill 1107, which the Legislature passed by a bipartisan two-thirds vote in 2016, gives all California jurisdictions the same choice that Los Angeles has. It restores to voters and legislators the right to decide for themselves whether politicians should have an alternative to big-money donors. Common Cause was proud to be a sponsor of SB 1107.

But Kopp and his allies again are challenging local governments’ autonomy and have filed suit to overturn the new law. We hope that the courts will listen to the experiences of California’s leading cities, where citizen-funded elections have made our democracy more fair, open and competitive.

Gavin Baker is the open government program manager for California Common Cause. He can be reached at GBaker@commoncause.org.

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