Michael Feinstein, Mayor of Santa Monica
Special to the Mirror
Santa Monicans understand the value of a healthy democracy. With another election season behind us, it’s time to reflect upon how we can improve, refine and evolve our own.
How do we conduct our elections? Do our elected officials have the tools to do their jobs? How well are community voices heard?
Let’s start with elections. How can we ensure that voters know the candidates? That big money doesn’t dominate local elections? And that our voting system produces a sufficiently representative City Council?
It’s in the public interest for voters to be well-informed — and for candidates not to be dependent upon big money. Public financing of elections helps with both, because when basic information is available to all voters, we reduce the costs of running for office at the same time.
Santa Monica currently provides 1) extensive free television time for all candidates on CityTV channel 16, 2) a free mailing of each candidate’s 200-word statements to all residents (English and Spanish), and 3) a listing on www.smvote.org of each candidate’s ballot statement, website and streaming video.
The value of these services is estimated to be between $10,000 and $15,000 per candidate. We should continue to improve/increase these forms of public support. What else can/should we do?
Direct financing of campaigns. The City Council has given City staff direction to explore additional models of public support, including direct financing to candidates’ campaigns. Many states and municipalities already have such public financing in place. If a candidate gathers enough small contributions from a large enough number of people, they are eligible to receive public funds. This process helps weed out non-serious candidates as well, while keeping costs low.
Public financing can also be tied to voluntary spending limits. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against mandatory spending limits, equating the spending of large sums of money with free speech. But public financing in exchange for voluntary limits is a legal tool Santa Monica can well consider.
The downside of such limits is that while candidate spending could be curtailed, there could be no legal limits upon the spending of independent expenditure committees, which operate legally separate from candidates, but often do large-scale mailings/campaigns on behalf of them.
Better timing of existing support. In Santa Monica, absentee voters made up approximately 20 percent of all voters, in four of the last five municipal elections. We need to craft campaign support with these voters in mind. Absentee voting helps increase voter turnout. But many people also vote before they’ve received information about each candidate.
In the last election, people could vote by mail starting October 7. However, the City’s voter information pamphlet wasn’t mailed until October 14. This “disjunction” unnecessarily favors wealthier candidates and incumbents who can more likely afford to do early mass-mailings to these “most likely absentee voters.”
The City Council could devote more resources to the City Clerk to accelerate the extensive, labor-intensive process of gathering, laying out and proof-reading the information pamphlet. Unlike other cities with few items on the ballot — and hence a faster production time — Santa Monica conducts City Council, Rent, College and School Board elections, on top of several ballot measures each election. In 2002, the City information pamphlet was 104 pages long!
The City could move up by two weeks, the broadcasting of its “Meet the Candidate,” five-minute-per candidate CityTV segment. In 2002, this began broadcasting October 1, only one week before people begin voting.
The City also needs to integrate its election information into its Web Information Network program (win.santa-monica.org). WIN subscribers receive regular email updates on areas of city business in which they have indicated an interest. The same could happen automatically with election information. Instead of waiting for the October mail, people could begin to receive information beginning in mid-August, and continuing throughout.
“Bringing government to the people” is a good strategy for a healthy democracy.
Next Week: Proportional Representation for Local Elections and More.
Mayor Feinstein can be reached via his website www.feinstein.org.