Women make up more than half of Santa Monica’s population, yet only one sits on our seven-member City Council. Why is that, and what can be done about it?
In December 2004, the Commission on the Status of Women presented a Report on the Status of Women to the City Council, noting that community members are concerned about the disproportionately low number of female elected officials in Santa Monica. To follow up, the Commission sought to identify and address the unique difficulties faced by women candidates. As a first step, the Commission sponsored “Tales from the Trail,” a roundtable discussion among five women who had recently run for seats on the Council, School Board, and College Board. A common lament – besides the extra burdens on women’s time posed by family responsibilities – was the challenge of raising campaign funds.
Women remain at a great disadvantage in having the material resources as well as the support systems needed to run for political office. What’s worse, our present system of financing campaigns poses a particularly formidable obstacle to women seeking a seat at the political table.
In response, the Commission investigated campaign reform measures – including public financing of campaigns and ranked voting – that might boost the prospects of women candidates. Of these, reducing -– if not entirely eliminating – the onerous task of privately financing campaigns for City elective offices stood out as the most powerful.
Since then, the City has been exploring how we might improve our local electoral process, seeking input from experts in government and the political process and, most important, from residents. Nearly a hundred people turned out last May for a workshop conducted by the City on “how we can improve our local elections.” Rethinking how we finance campaigns was a topic that came up from the floor again and again, and the idea of public financing drew wide and enthusiastic approval. This meeting was followed up with a report to the Council in June that presented a number of proposals from various experts and members of the public, and included a detailed analysis of specific conditions in Santa Monica. The Council heard a proposed model for partial public funding prepared by Vote4SM, a coalition of groups and individual residents that includes the SM Commission on the Status of Women, along with Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the California Clean Money Campaign, the Center for Governmental Studies, and all the neighborhood associations.
On October 23, the Council will again consider the question of electoral reform, and the Commission urges that Santa Monica adopt pubic financing for candidates running for local public office. The two seem to go together so logically: Public money/public office, public financing/public service, public support goes hand in hand with acting in the public interest.
The Commission has concluded that publicly financing campaigns would greatly level the playing field for women, and for all candidates who do not have access to personal fortunes or special-interest underwriting. Jurisdictions that finance their elections with public money (as documented by California Clean Money Campaign) have many more women and members of minorities in elected office at every level of government.
If the Council acts now, this new and better way of conducting our local elections could be in place in time for the next City Council race, which takes place in November 2008. The Council could act by enacting an ordinance or by placing an initiative on the February 2008 ballot -– or the public could petition for a ballot initiative. It is understandable that the current members of the Council might be reluctant to change a system that -– obviously -– has worked for them.
If Councilmembers don’t want to change the system themselves, let them place the matter before the people by putting it on the ballot, so that residents can decide if public financing would produce a political process that works better for Santa Monica. After all, isn’t that what democracy is all about?
Should you be interested in getting involved with Vote4SM or to learn more about public financing in Santa Monica, please attend our weekly meeting at Euphoria Loves Rawvolution Restaurant, 2301 Main Street in the Green Light District of Santa Monica, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. sharp. Or contact us via email at [email protected]