Controlling big money campaigns

Pub date October 26, 2010

Big money moved into the district supervisorial races this fall. Downtown forces, working with landlords and a labor union that wants a giant new hospital on Van Ness Avenue, are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into races in Districts 6, 8, and 10, trying to alter the direction of the board by electing more conservative candidates. And while district races allow grassroots candidates without huge war chests a decent shot at winning, all this cash is going to have an impact — and might prove to be decisive in some races.

A lot of the money hasn’t been raised directly by candidates, either — it’s in the form of so-called independent expenditure committees, outside operations that, in theory, have no direct connection to any candidate. These committees can raise money without limits, spend it however they like, and ignore the limits that candidates face. And thanks to the U. S. Supreme Court, it’s almost impossible to regulate the committees. So the IEs, as they’re known, can put out attack ads, make scurrilous accusations, even lie outright — and have no accountability.

But San Francisco, which led the nation in using ranked-choice voting and has an impressive system for public financing of elections and disclosure, ought to be working to control this flood of sleaze. There are two major steps the supervisors should be looking at.

1. Respond to the money. San Francisco currently gives matching public funds to candidates who raise enough on their own to meet a threshold. That gives underfunded candidates at least a fighting chance to stay competitive. But it doesn’t address what happens when an outside group comes in and drops, say, $50,000 to promote or attack a candidate.

Unfortunately, federal law and court decisions limit the city’s ability to cap or restrict that spending. But the current system of matching public funds offers a potential alternative.

Suppose, for example, the city offered matching funds not just on the basis of what a candidate has raised — but also on the basis of what his or her opponents (including IEs) are spending. For example, if an IE spends $50,000 attacking a candidate, the city could give that candidate $50,000 (or, better, $100,000) to fight back.

That sounds like a lot of taxpayer dollars — but if the system is designed right, much of it will never be spent. Because the independent expenditure committees are only effective if the money is one-sided. Once these operators realize that all they’ve be doing by spending money against a candidate is increasing that candidate’s own resources, they’re far less likely to mount these campaigns.

The disclosure laws can be tightened too. Campaign ads and mailers have to say where the money’s coming from — but only in tiny type or in rushed voiceovers that few people notice. The federal government’s mandate that cigarette packages and ads have big, prominent statements about the health risks of smoking has been very effective. Requiring campaigns, particularly independent expenditure groups, to identify their major donors in large, visible type in prominent places on printed material and in clear language on radio or TV ads would help the voters understand the players — and the motivations — behind the campaign material.

2. Deal with the legal violations — promptly. A lot of these big-money campaigns have a tendency to skirt — or sometimes flagrantly violate — the city’s campaign law. And by the time the ethics Commission gets around to investigating (if that even happens) the election is over and it’s too late.

The supervisors ought to mandate that all credible allegations of election-law violations be investigated — and resolved if at all possible before Election Day. And if that means Ethics needs more staff, that’s a small price to pay for honest elections.