Does San Francisco’s campaign finance law allow soapbox activists and vanity candidates to take advantage of public funding when they don’t have a chance of winning elections?
The City’s Ethics Commission mulled over that question Monday night when commissioners considered making changes to the law. High on the list of discussion topics were lessons learned from the November mayoral election, which cost taxpayers more than $4.6 million even though five of the publicly funded candidates garnered less than 5 percent of the vote.
Most commissioners on Monday expressed support for increasing the amount of campaign donations required to qualify for public financing, from $5,000 to $10,000. Raising that threshold would make it tougher for candidates who are not serious about winning, commissioners said.
“Why do we have public funding? It is to level the playing field,” Commissioner Beverly Hayon said. “It is not to give every Tom, Dick and Harriet a soapbox for their ideas. I think there was a feeling that a lot of people were running for office just to create some name recognition for the future.”
But during a public comment period, Ray Hartz Jr., director of the advocacy group San Francisco Open Government, said the higher threshold would place an undue burden on poorer candidates, who already have to prove their viability by gathering signatures to appear on the ballot.
“It limits the participation of the average candidate in the electoral process,” Hartz said.
Commissioners also considered changing the formula for matching private funds with public money and raising the cap on public financing. The latter proposal was prompted by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a similar system in Arizona.
The Ethics Commission planned to vote on the proposals at its January meeting. The rule changes would then have to be approved by the Board of Supervisors.