Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition analysis reveals influence of money in Berkeley politics

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An analysis reviewing past Berkeley elections conducted by a local nonprofit concluded that money is often a clear advantage in city elections.

The Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition, which conducted the analysis, gathered data that were reported by campaigns over the course of several years. In total, the coalition found that contributions from less than one percent of households made up more than 50 percent of total contributions to City Council elections.

“In order to run a successful campaign, you do need a base of funding,” said Alec Saslow,a volunteer for the Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition. “Folks who don’t have wealthy friends … are shut out.”

According to Open Secrets, a nonprofit dedicated to more transparent governance, in the United States, about .01 percent of donors contributed to about one third of all reported fundraising in 2014 federal elections.

The coalition’s analysis went as far back as 2000 but drew its conclusion from only the past eight elections. Financial opposition in these elections varied significantly.

Although the nonprofit used a limited amount of data, Mayor Tom Bates said his experience aligned with the analysis’s report.

“Because (you have more funds) you can do more mailing, you can do more contact,” Bates said. “They’re able to get their ideas, their platforms, to the people.”

Bates said the ability to disseminate a message and be known is crucial to a campaign. He said the reasons why incumbents win so often is that they have the advantage of knowing the press and already having a base of support.

Despite the advantage of funds, both Bates and Saslow said money was not the deciding factor in winning a campaign. In 2014, incumbent Councilmember Kriss Worthington won despite raising less money than his opposition in the election.

“I think in Berkeley … you can’t buy the election. You need to have real support,” Bates said. “You can’t just run a campaign by having a lot of money.”

In Berkeley, individuals can only contribute up to $250 directly to a candidate’s campaign — though there is no contribution cap for those donating to political action committees unaffiliated with candidates.

Bates said that when running a campaign requiring thousands of dollars, an individual’s contribution of $250 does not make a real difference. Support through volunteer work or a sign on a window is often more important, Bates said.

The coalition was unable to determine comprehensive demographics information of these campaign contributors, since the campaign reports only include a person’s name, address and employer. Bates said, however, the main difference between contributors and non-contributors was income.

“Everybody who gave me money could afford to do it,” Bates said. “I think that’s the main demographic.”

Contact Michael Lee at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @_HyunkyuL.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the study was a MapLight analysis. In fact, the analysis was conducted by the Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition.