At its regular meeting on April 20, the City Council discussed the topic of Sonoma’s campaign contribution limits, and whether or not they should be changed. In place since they were adopted a decade ago, in 2002, Sonoma’s City Council campaign donations have been limited to a maximum of $200 per donor if candidates limit their total campaign expenditures to $10,000. If they don’t accept that expenditure limit, individual contributions are limited to $100.
Cities are allowed to establish their own campaign contribution limits, and in Sonoma County they vary between $200 and $750, with most at $500 or less. Two cities, Cloverdale and Sebastopol, have not set their own contribution limits, which make them subject to the State of California’s default limit of $4,900 per individual donation. The City of Santa Rosa limits individual donations to a maximum of $500.
There’s no question that campaign tactics and expenses have changed since 2002. Sending mailed postcards and brochures is now more common, and knocking on doors has decreased. A single 6×9 inch color postcard sent to all the voters in Sonoma typically costs upwards of $4,500, including printing, postage, and design. Some argue that a $10,000 expenditure limit is too little in today’s world, while others argue that the idea of big, expensive campaigns is the last thing a city like Sonoma needs.
Electoral politics in America has become a big money game, and money now dominates national and state elections. Donors make large contributions hoping it will provide them with access to candidates and, if elected, representatives. In its own way, raising money has become nearly a full-time job for some elected officials; it’s changed the face of elections and our democracy itself, and not for the better.
The Supreme Court’s approval of unlimited corporate campaign contributions, dark money, and unlimited expenditures has degraded, even corrupted, the entire electoral process. The last thing the City of Sonoma needs are City Council races fueled by big money.
The issue is, what defines big money? Does a $200 contribution limit still make sense or should it be raised? If raised, how high should the limit be? In a city with approximately 6,000 voters, what’s an amount that makes sense? Raising the contribution limit makes it harder for lower-income candidates to compete with well-heeled candidates. A more level playing field seems fairer to all candidates, and we can provide that in our small city.
In a perfect world, we’d like to see public financing of all political campaigns, giving qualifying candidates equal access to very limited resources. Added to that, we’d like a significantly shorter campaign period. Ranked choice voting might make sense, too. All of these options, however, are unlikely to be adopted any time soon, and will require a sea change in policy and public opinion. (A clear and easily-found list of donors/donations posted on the city’s website is a priority as well).
Meanwhile, on the local level, the current City Council needs to make a decision about contribution limits. Possibly a modest increase is in order – $500 seems fair – but in no case should the state limit of $4,900 be adopted. Given the nature of the community and its exceptionally high rate of voting, there is no need for high spending on council election races.