Lawmakers In San Francisco Move To Update Its Public Financing Program

San Francisco City Hall

On September 17, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a proposed ordinance to update the city’s matching funds program, a system of public financing that matches city residents’ campaign contributions to local candidates with public funds at a certain rate.

If the Board of Supervisors votes again next week to approve of the bill, it would create stronger incentives for city candidates to maximize their voter outreach and, in turn, amplify campaign participation among a broader and more representative portion of San Francisco’s population.

San Francisco voters originally approved the city’s matching funds program for candidates running for the Board of Supervisors in 2000, and the program was expanded in 2006 to include mayoral candidates. Since then, local candidates’ participation in the program has remained solid.

In San Francisco’s elections last year, a total of fourteen candidates qualified for matching funds, including Mayor London Breed, who used the program for her successful campaign in the mayoral special election.

The San Francisco Ethics Commission, which regulates local campaigns, formulated the ordinance now being considered by the Board of Supervisors after the agency conducted a comprehensive review of potential improvements to the existing matching funds system.

The proposal would update San Francisco’s program by raising the program’s public-to-private dollar matching rate to six-to-one for campaign contributions of up to $150 given by city residents.

Under the proposed ordinance, if a San Francisco resident contributed $150 to a local candidate participating in the program, the city would match the contribution with $900 in public funds, raising the total value of the resident’s contribution to $1,050.

In addition to increasing the program’s matching funds ratio, the ordinance would expand the total amount of public funding available to candidates in the program.

Public financing programs require periodic maintenance to ensure they are meeting the needs of candidates and the community.

In other cities with public financing, increasing the ratio of matching funds available to candidates has significantly improved electoral engagement among city residents and helped to shift the focus of campaigns away from big donors and toward the electorate at large.

For example, New York City initially implemented its public financing program using a match rate of one-to-one but has gradually increased the matching funds rate over the years.

An analysis of New York City’s matching funds program found that the city’s implementation of a six-to-one matching rate in 2009 spurred increases both in the number of individual contributors of $250 or less to local candidates and in the percentage of local candidates’ total campaign funds coming from those small donors.

Another study of New York City’s matching funds program likewise concluded that the program had served to boost political participation among a larger and more diverse share of the city populace.

While contributions to candidates running privately financed campaigns typically come from only a small slice of the population, public financing programs provide powerful motivation for candidates to reach out to more people for campaign funding—leading to a pool of donors that is more reflective of the community’s overall makeup.

Following the successes of New York City’s matching funds program, New York’s legislature passed a law earlier this year to create a small donor matching funds program for statewide and legislative candidates.

On the other side of the country, the Los Angeles City Council adopted an ordinance in late 2018 that increases the matching funds rate and total amount of public funding available in that city’s public financing program. 

In addition, there are a number of new programs taking effect in cities across the country, including Baltimore, Denver, and Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, voters in Albuquerque, N.M. will consider a ballot initiative to revamp their city’s public financing system in November.

With San Francisco set to hold elections for various local offices in 2020, the Board of Supervisors must move quickly on the proposed ordinance to ensure city residents and candidates will benefit from an updated public financing program next year.

The people of San Francisco deserve to have their voices fully heard in local campaigns, and passage of this ordinance is a critical step toward achieving that goal.

On September 4, CLC submitted a letter of support for the proposed ordinance to the Board of Supervisors’ Government Audit & Oversight Committee.

Austin works with CLC's State & Local Reform Program on efforts to improve campaign finance regulation and electoral integrity around the country.