Talking seriously about election reform

I particularly enjoyed the comment Len Raphael a while back on my post about term limits, so much so, that with his permission, I’m republishing it here as a post of its own.

I wouldn’t necessarily endorse every single thing he suggests, but overall, he successfully pinpoints what the most serious barriers for challengers in our municipal elections are and proposes measures that would ameliorate some of the problems. If people are serious about local electoral reform, these are the sort of things you need to be talking about. Such reforms would do a hell of a lot more to help people outside of the local political establishment than term limits. Enjoy:

Term limits aren’t the answer. As Pat McCullough’s treasurer (ret.), it’s very tempting to support term limits but nope, don’t think it solves the problem of incompetent elected city council members beholden to labor unions, developers, and various non profit orgs.

The crux of the problem are the financial barriers to grass roots challengers, and the abysmal level of media coverage of Oakland municipal government.

Start by treating union in kind contributions of free labor, office space, phones to staff phone banks, stuff envelopes, and go door to door to report the same as monetary contributions, by imputing the average hourly pay of those members to the work performed. If it bothers you that union members time should have an imputed monetary value, but not non union member residents of the district, maybe restrict union in kind 0 valued labor donations to those of members who live in oakland, and only impute monetary value to members who live outside oakland.

At a bare minimum, require unions to report the imputed value of their in kind contributions just like any monetary contributions would be reported.

Next, lower the threshold of Oakland matching funding for district races from $3,000 to $1,000. Raise the maximum matchable contributions to $300 per couple; per business, and $150 per person from the current $100 per person. 3,000 seems like small change, but for a grassroots challenger, raising 3,000 only from oakland sources at a max of 100/donor when many donors only give 25 to 50 bucks, can take several weeks, so that by the time you’ve raised the money for matching, the absentee ballots have been received and probably mostly mailed in.

Yes, I’d say raise the 600$ max limits to 1,200 per individual but that’s a federal or state limit. That limit wasn’t a problem for Obamba, but for grassroots challengers those limits have the opposite effect of their stated purpose: they make it near impossible for a challenger who is not well to do to raise enough money to get her or his message out to enough supporters to raise enough money to challenge an incumbent who every union and developer is scared of pissing off because the incumbent approves their contracts and zoning challenges, subsidies etc.

Other item: delay the release of absentee ballots to two weeks before the general election. In a perfect world, internet voting would be secure enough so that one could vote two months ahead of time, but change one’s vote right up to election day. Because ill funded challengers can’t afford the same multiple mailers, don’t have incumbents name recognition, office perks etc., they need as much time as possible to get their message to the voters.

(A kludge would be to require all voters to give a validated email address combined with the right to opt of getting printed election material. that would significantly lower the cost of educating voters. might even give people the right to opt out of robo calls)

That leaves the basic underlying problem in Oakland that there is no way that a typical underfunded challenger can bring a voter up to date on the last 4 or 8 years of Oakland municipal affairs in a few months and say $20,000 worth of emails and mailers and door to doors. It frustrated the heck out of me, when we’d go door to door and tell voters almost word for word the same thing Russo said in his chronicle op ed piece about the insanity of having more cops investigating cops than there are cops investigating murderers and rapists, but if I were an Oakland voter, I’d think to myself that couldn’t be possible, if it were true I’m sure I’d have read about it in the chronicle or the trib or it would have made the tv coverage, so it must be election bs.

you’d explain to potential supporters when standing on their door step that their city council incumbents had actually voted to freeze police hiring. You’d see the skeptical look on their faces, how of course you could’nt expect me to believe that.

god forbid, you’d even attempt to explain how their council had ok’d contracts granting medical retirement benefits that weren’t counted in public financial reports but could lead to massive cutbacks in city services if not dealt with soon.

I have not the slightest idea how to solve that problem. If ANG or the Chron thought Oakland govt coverage would sell papers, I’m sure they would do it.


The unintended consequences of term limits, in addition to the one about getting council members who know less about policy than the bureaucrats, unions, developers and non profit special interest groups (which i think is more of an issue at the state and federal level where the issues and legislative options are much more complex, and campaigns much more expensive/time consuming) is that you force candidates to become partisan professional pols who always have to be planning for thelr run at higher office after they term out, or try to line up a revolving door lobbyist or lawyer thing. That in turn drives the candidates into kissing the butts of the chieftans of each of the oakland political fiefdoms right from the get go, because you can’t expect to win higher office without the backing of one of the kingpins.

Alternatively we won’t get younger people who want to serve the public as council members but don’t want to run for higher office. You can’t expect a younger person to devote say 8 years to city council during their prime career building life period.

He asked me to add that “the blight ordinance should be changed to allow political signage on specified public areas eg. median strips, for a specified number of time before an election, with a requirement backed by a fee for removal afterwards.”


7 thoughts on “Talking seriously about election reform

  1. Max Allstadt

    Election reform begins with transparency and accountability reform. A few questions to ponder:

    How much secrecy is needed to effectively govern a city? Other than criminal investigations, what sorts of activities would actually be threatened by total transparency?

    Although I’ve shot my mouth off enough to jeopardize my chances of ever winning office, I still entertain a little fantasy from time to time: run for office and webcast my entire life, promising that I’d continue to do so as an official. If elected, I would never go off the record. Ever. How would that work out?

    How can we have more accountability? John McCain, who I’m not voting for, has recently said he’d bring a version of Prime Minister’s Questions to America. Could we do that in Oakland. A strong mayor should be able to debate the public and the council openly. Strong council members should be able to address and debate their constituents directly, openly and regularly. If you can’t back up your position on the hot seat, do you deserve the office you hold? I don’t think so.

    Accountability when officials transgress is all to limited too. Why should any one get an easy exit if they’re caught committing acts of nepotism, or any type of corruption or conflict of interest? I think we need heavier deterrents, consequences drastic enough that those who serve will consider their ethics very very carefully. I’m talking lost pensions, fines and jail time.

    Those are my thoughts. I still stand by my 2 terms on, one term off suggestion. As far as procedural reform goes, I believe anything which can be proven to enhance turnout should be implemented.

  2. Ralph

    don’t have time to digest it all, but on imputed value of labor – would that need to apply to all and two value needs to be limited to value of the service provided not what that particular volunteer would earn for their normal job. Otherwise, you could have 2 people doing the same thing at substantially different values.

    political posters. in some places i know agents are fined for leaving boards long after the open house ends ( talking days not minutes) do the same with campaign postings

  3. Max Allstadt

    The value of labor issue is probably the most impossible to implement of all of Len’s suggestions. Too easy to fudge. Too difficult to monitor. Too longwinded and hairsplitty if it ends up in court. Going door to door is an act of political free speech that is far more difficult to restrict than a monetary contribution. Arguing that money isn’t speech is one thing. The day you successfully argue in court that speech isn’t speech, I’ll eat my hat. (Or perhaps put you on retainer!).

    The timing of the absentee ballots is important. Len’s absolutely right on that. But let’s not forget the timing of the election. Concurrent with federal elections unless we need to have a special election.

    I still don’t get why we have term limits for executives but not legislatures. What gives? Did the legislatures, (local, state and federal) write our term limit laws.

    How about global term limits? Limit the total number of years in any elective office in this state to ten years, and ban lobbying afterwards. Government should be a full time job, but not a full life career.

  4. Ralph

    Actually, the value of labor is fairly easy todetermine. Phone banking has an established labor rate – use the rate that CALPirG pays or some other similar org. Also have credit card companies.

    trying to tie to figure out how tying the elections with local elections is going to work….there is an underlying assumption that people vote in presidential elections. speaking with sean post election blues, turns out some knuckleheads actually a lot of knuckleheads simply don’t vote. i think some elections will still be off cycle b/c not all seats come up for a vote at a time.

  5. Max Allstadt

    It’s easy to determine the labor rate ralph, sure. But it’s also easy to fudge. If there’s anything I learned from that election, it was that people will bend and break any rules they can get away with.

    Politicians want to win too much to care even a mote about the spirit of election law. The letter of the law must be clear cut, iron clad and iron fisted.

  6. Sue

    From Len:

    “That leaves the basic underlying problem in Oakland that there is no way that a typical underfunded challenger can bring a voter up to date on the last 4 or 8 years of Oakland municipal affairs in a few months and say $20,000 worth of emails and mailers and door to doors.”

    Okay Len or V. Smoothe — how do we get residents knowlegeable about the city of Oakland.
    We need an “Oakland for Dummies”– maybe a kinder name is “Oakland for Newcomers” or those who want to catch up on what’s happenning. As a newcomer I’m always amazed at what I learn at these different meetings, blogs, websites, yahoo groups and how little I truly understand — how the government in Oakland is set up, how it is supposed to work, and how it is working.

    “Implementation” could be a thesis — how is Oakland set up, is it working? At the MGO Democratic Club we heard a talk on the City Council. It was quite informative— from the history point of view and also what reforms we need to do—like define the job of the council and define the job of a strong mayor (if that is what we need).

    We are getting loads of information from V. Smoothe and also from and others– any one want to make a “Welcome Wagon” present to the voters of Oakland.