Over the last fifteen years, a growing movement in the US has called for the diminution of corporate and special interest money in elections by providing public funds for campaigns. In that time, sixteen states and a number of municipalities have enacted various schemes that provide public financing for candidates for public office, usually with requirements that the candidates abide by spending caps and raise a certain amount of money on their own through small donations.
This past election tested San Francisco’s version of public finance in its mayoral election. The City by the Bay provides $50,000 to any mayoral candidate who can raise at least $25,000 from donations of $100 or less. After that, donations to the candidate are matched at a rate of 4:1, decreasing to 1:1 by the time that candidate reaches the $1,375,000 spending cap imposed on those candidates receiving public financing. In a single election, a candidate may receive as much as $850,000 from the city, unless, as in this election a privately financed campaign exceeds the cap. Thereafter, the cap rises in $100,000 increments as privately financed campaigns continue to spend.
In this election, however, a publicly financed campaign did not take the prize. Interim Mayor Ed Lee won the election on November 8 after funding his campaign through private contributions. Ultimately a total of $2.6 million was spent in support of Lee’s campaign, including nearly one million dollars spent by independent groups. This amount, however, is dwarfed by recent campaigns in San Francisco where, for example, in the 2003 election, former Mayor Gavin Newsom spent $5.1 million.
Lee announced in August that he would not be accepting public funding for his campaign due to his concern for the city’s budget. Said Lee, “[w]e had to make a lot of cuts to balance the budget, and I just personally feel that if I can raise the money for this campaign, why not put it on myself to do that?”
In all, nine of the eleven candidates for mayor opted to accept public funds, receiving anywhere from $300,000 to $700,000, totaling $4.6 million in city funds dispersed. Notably, the second-place candidate behind Lee was not second in funds. San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos gained 40% of the final vote tally having only received $450,639 from the city. This placed him seventh of nine in the amount of public funding.
While some proponents of public financing may applaud this substantial showing by a publicly-funded candidate, commentators have pointed out some problems with San Francisco’s public finance scheme. The issue of “Zombie Candidates” has received particular attention. Zombie Candidates are those who stayed in the election well past the point at which their defeat was certain. Allegedly, these candidates did so to avoid a provision in San Francisco’s public finance scheme that states: “Any candidate who receives public financing but who withdraws . . . shall repay the Election Campaign Fund the full sum received from the Fund.” While this may have been intended as a cost-saving device, it may have prevented some of the eleven candidates from withdrawing before the election and thereby clearing the already crowded field. Given that 50,000 of the 187,411 voted for neither Lee nor Avalos (even as their second and third choices under San Francisco’s Rank Choice Voting ballot scheme), San Francisco may be reconsidering its process in the future to avoid such unintended consequences.
Reid Schweitzer is a second-year student at William and Mary Law.