Nearly three-quarters of Oakland voters (74%) approved an initiative in 2022 that took a comprehensive approach to campaign finance solutions in the city.

However, one of its historic changes is in need of funding if it is going to be implemented by 2026; namely, its “democracy dollars” public finance system.

Oakland voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Fair Elections Act in November 2022, which implemented several changes to city regulations, including:

(1) It lowered individual contribution limits.

(2) It required disclosure of the top 3 highest contributors on independent expenditures.

(3) It established an online portal to view independent expenditure disclosures.

(4) It instituted a two year ban on lobbying after a local official leaves office. 

The initiative also implemented a public voucher program that caught the nation’s attention in 2020 when Andrew Yang ran for the Democratic presidential nomination known as “democracy dollars.”

Put simply, the program will give all eligible voters in Oakland four $25 vouchers ($100 in total) to contribute to the local campaign(s) of their choice. Oakland is the second city in the US to approve the use of this type of voucher program. 

Seattle voters approved the use of “democracy dollars” in 2015.

Supporters of the “democracy dollars” program say the idea is to encourage engagement between the average voter and candidates running for office while also bolstering the influence of the public over “mega donors.”

Opponents generally point to the cost and use of taxpayer money, which is not limited solely to the cost of the vouchers.

The Pacific Legal Foundation sued Seattle over its system. The group claimed its free speech rights were violated because taxpayer money was being used to support candidates it opposed.

The Washington Supreme Court, however, unanimously upheld the “democracy dollars” program.

“The Democracy Voucher Program does not alter, abridge, restrict, censor, or burden speech. Nor does it force association between taxpayers and any message conveyed by the program,” the court wrote.

The Seattle program was approved in 2015 and was first implemented in 2017. However, Oakland’s program is taking longer due in large part to the city’s recent budget problems.

The city council passed a $4.2 billion spending plan in 2023 in the wake of a historic budget shortfall, which cut department budgets and froze hundreds of vacant positions citywide.

The Public Ethics Commission, which enforces the city’s campaign finance laws, was one of the departments that got hit — which resulted in the Democracy Dollars Program being postponed.

Voters will not get to use “democracy dollars” in 2024, and the nonpartisan Oakland Rising says there is a risk of further delay beyond 2026 if more funding isn’t provided soon.

Specifically, the group says the Public Ethics Commission needs a new ethics analyst to ensure full and successful implementation of the Democracy Dollars Program.

This will cost the city an additional $100,000 at minimum.

“The mayor and city council have already taken necessary steps to move this project, and by including this funding now, we will be taking one small step forward to avoid taking 10 steps backward,” said Oakland Rising Political Director Pecolia Manigo.

“Realistically, this program has a very tough path to implementation if this position is not funded until the next budget, and city officials must do what is necessary to honor the will of the voters.”

Oakland Rising has called on city officials to include the new staffing for the Public Ethics Commission in their mid-cycle budget adjustments so that work can begin in 2025 for 2026 implementation.