2018 Fair Elections in Berkeley

Bergen Smith, Hamsini Sridharan, Laura Curlin | December 19, 2019


In 2016, Berkeley voters approved Measure X1, the Berkeley Fair Elections Act, to create a public funding system for local elections (read our case study of the campaign here). Under this system, candidates for city council and mayor who choose to participate agree to only accept contributions of $50 or less (instead of the regular $250 limit). In return, the city matches contributions they receive from Berkeley residents, six to one. A $10 donation becomes worth $70 to the candidate; a $50 donation becomes $350. The program seeks to empower candidates to run for office on the strength of community support rather than wealthy connections, reduce the influence of special interests in Berkeley elections, and encourage grassroots political participation by amplifying the influence of small donors.

The 2018 election was the first test for the Berkeley Fair Elections program. Four city council seats were up for election, in Districts 1, 4, 7, and 8.1 MapLight’s analysis of campaign finance data suggests that the program successfully met its goals during its first implementation. High candidate participation in the matching funds program significantly reduced candidates’ reliance on money from outside the city, high-dollar donors, political committees, and businesses. The program also successfully expanded the influence of small donors residing in Berkeley: the number of people giving to candidates increased compared to previous years—but the total amount of money they gave to candidates decreased. 

Key Findings:

  • Candidate participation in the program was high—and participating candidates were successful. Ten out of 14 city council candidates (71 percent) opted to participate in the Fair Elections program. All four candidates who won their races participated.
  • Races were more competitive. The number of viable candidates per seat increased slightly in 2018 relative to previous election cycles.
  • Candidates relied on public funding instead of wealthy donors. The amount of money that candidates received directly from donors fell by 50 percent compared to 2016.
  • Money made a difference. In three out of four races, the candidate who raised the most money via direct contributions and public funds won their race. 
  • Funding came from individuals, not organizations. Businesses and political committees donated about $10,000 to candidates in both 2014 and 2016. This fell to less than $4,500 during the 2018 election.
  • Funding from outside Berkeley decreased dramatically. Contributions from non-Berkeley residents dropped to 10 percent of all candidate funding in 2018, compared to 33 percent in 2014 and 2016. Contributions from outside California dropped to less than 1.5 percent of all funds in 2018, from nine percent in 2014 and six percent in 2016.
  • Small donations became more important. In 2014, the average contribution above the $50 itemization threshold from a resident was $198; in 2016, it was $207. In 2018, the public funding program brought this average down to $78. Donations under $50 made up 10 percent of direct contributions to candidates in 2018, compared to just three percent in 2014 and 2016. 
  • Large donations became less important. Contributions of $250 (the maximum allowed contribution in Berkeley) made up 58 percent of candidate funds in 2014, and 64 percent in 2016. In 2018, only 15 percent of direct contributions came from individuals writing $250 checks.
  • More Berkeley residents donated to candidates. More than 1,170 Berkeley residents contributed $50 or more in 2018, compared to just 930 in 2016 and 670 in 2014. Compared to the 2014 election (when the same seats were last up for vote), there were more donors from every zip code in 2018.


Overview of Public Funding 

Of the 14 candidates who ran for Berkeley City Council, 10 chose to participate in the contribution matching program (a 71 percent participation rate).2 All four candidates who won their races participated in the program. Eleven of the 14 candidates can be considered “viable,” defined as receiving at least $10,000 in direct contributions and/or public funds. All 10 Fair Elections participants were viable candidates. See Table 1 for a snapshot of candidate participation and public matching funds received. Note that candidates were required to return any unused public funds to the city.

Table 1: Summary of Campaign Contributions and Public Funding

Candidates who participated in the matching funds program collectively received over $315,000 from the city; approximately two-thirds of all candidate funding came from public funds rather than from private donors. Four candidates—including three of the four winners—maxed out on the amount of public funding they were allowed to receive from the city ($40,000).

Empowering Candidates to Run

One of the goals of Measure X1 was to enable candidates to run for office regardless of their personal wealth and connections, and without having to rely on donors with deep pockets. A larger field of viable candidates is one sign of a broader candidate pool. There were nine city council seats up for election between 2014 and 2017; in total, 21 viable candidates ran for office during this period, an average 2.3 viable candidates per seat. The 2018 election saw an increase in the number of viable candidates per seat, with 11 viable candidates—10 of whom participated in the Fair Elections program—vying for four seats, an average of 2.75 per seat. 

Of the 14 candidates in 2018, 10 (71 percent) were first-time candidates for city council, while two were sitting councilmembers and two had previously run for office. This was a slightly higher proportion than in previous years; from 2014 to 2017, 15 of 24 candidates (63 percent) were running for the first time. Two of the four city council winners in 2018 were first-time candidates: District 1’s Rashi Kesarwani and District 7’s Rigel Robinson.

In a survey conducted by MapLight following the election, one candidate commented, “In terms of impacting the election at large, I think public matching funds helped to encourage a more diverse group of candidates into the field—people that wouldn’t have been able to personally contribute a lot to their campaigns were still able to run viable campaigns because of the matching funds. This helped draw in people who worked full time, were students, or didn’t have a ton of savings to run for office.”

Incumbency did remain an important factor in 2018, with incumbents Kate Harrison (District 4) and Lori Droste (District 8) each winning reelection by more than 15 points. Both also participated in the Fair Elections program.

Amount Raised by Candidates

Comparing the total amount of money received by candidates in the 2018 election to the 2014 and 2016 elections sheds light on the impact of public funding. Four city council seats were up for election each year, with the same four districts included in the 2014 and 2018 cycles.

Compared to the 2014 and 2016 elections, the total amount of money donated directly to candidates fell in 2018. In 2014, the 10 candidates for city council collectively raised $219,400. This total grew to over $315,700 across 12 candidates in 2016, likely due to increased public interest as a result of four contested city council races and a concurrent mayoral election. In 2018, the total amount raised by the field of candidates fell to $159,000—significantly less than the amounts raised in 2014 or 2016. 

Figure 1: Total Amount Raised by Election Cycle

Put differently, in 2014, candidates received an average $21,900 each from donors; in 2016, candidates averaged $26,300. In 2018, candidates raised an average $11,400 directly from donors—nearly a 50 percent drop compared to 2014. 

This drop in direct contributions from donors can be attributed in large part to high candidate participation in the Fair Elections program. Participating candidates relied heavily on public funds to finance their campaigns. In fact, including public funds, the total amount that candidates received from all sources in 2018 was $475,900. However, the amount of money that candidates received directly from donors fell by half—a sign that the matching funds program incentivized candidates to rely on small donors and public funds rather than on high-dollar donors and special interests.

At a 2019 meeting to discuss administrative amendments to the Fair Elections Program, one council member remarked, “I ran once under the regular financing system and once under public financing. And what that meant to me in the second round was that I was able to talk to voters a lot more. I didn't have to talk to them about raising money, I got to talk to them about ideas.”

Winning candidates raised $33,000 on average in 2014 and 2016. In the 2018 election, the average amount raised directly from donors by a winning candidate was just $15,600—but including matching funds, winning candidates received an average $50,200.

Impact on Election Results

Money matters in Berkeley elections. Of the eight contested races between 2014 and 2017, six seats went to the candidates who raised the most money, while two seats went to a candidate who raised less than one of their opponents. This pattern generally held in 2018, though Fair Elections matching funds may have played a role in some candidates’ success. The incumbents in Districts 4 and 8—Kate Harrison and Lori Droste—both raised more money in direct contributions from donors and received the maximum amount of matching funds. Rashi Kesarwani (District 1) raised less in direct contributions than her opponent Igor Tregub, but including matching funds, her total campaign funds surpassed Tregub’s. Rigel Robinson (District 7) outraised his opponent Ces Rosales in direct contributions, but including matching funds Rosales raised more money overall.

Limiting the Influence of Special Interests

The Fair Elections program reduced the influence of non-individual donors, such as businesses and political committees, as well as non-resident donors in Berkeley’s elections. These funders did not simply turn to independent expenditures: there was no increase in outside spending compared to the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.

Figure 2: Funding Sources by Election Cycle

In MapLight’s survey, one candidate who participated in the Fair Elections program said, “I was able to gather funds earlier in the campaign, leaving me more time to speak with voters. It allowed me to more easily turn away funds from large organizations or requests from other candidates/organizations for contributions (I didn’t have to say no; it is built in).”

Political Committee, Business, and Organization Contributors

Candidates who participate in the Fair Elections matching program commit to only taking money from individuals, not businesses or political committees. Since most candidates did participate in the program, there were significantly fewer contributions from non-individual entities during the 2018 election. Businesses and political committees donated about $10,000 to candidates in both the 2014 and 2016 election cycles ($9,900 in 2014 and $10,300 in 2016). This fell to less than $4,500 in 2018, with nearly all of it going to one non-participating candidate.

Contributions from Non-Residents

Candidates who participate in the Fair Elections program may accept contributions of $50 or less from any individual, including people who reside outside Berkeley. However, only contributions from Berkeley residents are eligible to be matched by the city. In 2018, this incentivized candidates to campaign more heavily within Berkeley’s borders, rather than cultivating support from outside the city.

In 2014, candidates raised $70,700 from individuals outside Berkeley; in 2016, they raised $105,200—in both cases, approximately one-third of all campaign funding. Of those totals, $20,800 came from out-of-state donors in 2014; $18,700 came from out of state in 2016. Out-of-state donors comprised nine percent of total funding in 2014 and six percent in 2016.

In 2018, candidates raised $46,900 from non-Berkeley residents—just 10 percent of all campaign funds, counting public funding. There was a similar decline in money contributed from out-of-state: in 2018, less than $6,800 came in from outside California, comprising less than 1.5 percent of candidates’ total financial backing. Not only did the total amount received from outside Berkeley fall, but the average amount contributed by non-residents dropped by more than half, from $168 in 2014 and $186 in 2016, to $76 during the 2018 election.

Independent Expenditures

One critique of public funding programs is that they may divert money into independent expenditures—spending to influence an election that is not coordinated with a candidate or their campaign. However, the Berkeley 2018 election provides no apparent evidence of an increase in outside spending attributable to the public funding program.

During the 2014 election, the Berkeley Firefighters Association and the Berkeley Police Association spent a combined $18,300 supporting three city council candidates and opposing one’s candidacy. In 2016, the Berkeley Police Association, Berkeley Working Families, and the National Association of Realtors spent an aggregate $59,100 supporting four candidates for city council. In 2018, the Berkeley Police Association spent nearly $35,800 supporting and opposing three candidates; 2018 independent expenditures fell right between 2014 and 2016 levels. 

Amplifying the Impact of Small Donors

The Fair Elections program amplified the influence of Berkeley’s small donors. As a result of the program’s reduced contribution limit of $50, candidates relied more heavily on contributions of $50 or less, rather than focusing on individuals who could afford to donate larger sums.

“I think this system is deeply revolutionary. It makes a candidacy like mine, for example, possible and viable. I told students—who were my primary donors—often that if they could forego a single burrito with guac, that would multiply sixfold into a meaningful contribution to keep our campaign running.”

Berkeley City Council member

Contributions from Berkeley Residents

More Berkeley residents contributed to city council candidates in the 2018 election than in prior years. Eighty-six percent of all campaign funds—including direct contributions and matching funds—can be traced to Berkeley residents, compared to just 60 percent in 2014 and 2016. More than 1,170 city residents contributed at least $50 in 2018, compared to just 930 in 2016 and 670 in 2014. Based on Fair Elections program candidate records, another estimated 280 Berkeley residents made donations under $50 to participating candidates in 2018.3 

Compared to the 2014 election (when the same council seats were last up for vote), there were more contributors from every Berkeley zip code in 2018, suggesting that the Fair Elections program successfully increased the participation of residents city-wide—not just in wealthy neighborhoods with majority white populations. Figure 3, below, shows the increase in the number of contributors in Berkeley during the 2018 election, as compared to prior elections. This effect is not limited to a single geographic area, but present throughout the city.

Figure 3: Map of Campaign Contributions by Election Cycle

Size of Contributions

Berkeley’s contribution limit is $250. By opting to participate in the Fair Elections program, candidates agree to further limit the size of the contributions they receive to $50. In 2014, the average contribution above the $50 itemization threshold from a resident was $198; in 2016, it was $207. In 2018, the public funding program brought this average down to $78.

In prior elections, many candidates received the majority of their funding from individuals donating the maximum allowed contribution of $250. In 2014, 58 percent of contributions received by candidates came from 450 individuals contributing this maximum amount. The 2016 election saw an even higher proportion of money from such individuals: 64 percent of all money raised came from 706 high-dollar donors. In 2018, high participation in the public funding program meant that only 15 percent of direct contributions to candidates came from 95 individuals writing $250 checks (all of which went to candidates who did not participate in the Fair Elections program).

In Berkeley, candidates are only required to publicly itemize information about donors who contribute $50 or more. Donations under $50 are reported as a lump sum. One sign of the strength of the public funding program is that the amount of unitemized small donations increased dramatically, from $6,800 in 2014 and $8,200 in 2016 to over $15,300 in 2018. Donations under $50 made up 10 percent of all direct contributions in 2018, as opposed to just three percent in 2014 and 2016.

In their requests for matching funds, candidates participating in the Fair Elections program did itemize contributions of $50 or less from Berkeley residents. According to these records, candidates requested matching funds for more than 1,400 contributions. The average size of contributions that candidates requested to be matched (“average match-requested contribution”) was $41.

Eight of the 10 participating candidates—and three of the four winners—relied heavily on $50 contributions in their matching requests, with between 79 and 98 percent of the contributions they recorded hitting the $50 limit. Rigel Robinson (District 7) and Alfred Twu (District 8) focused on even smaller contributions; 41 percent of Robinson’s match-requested contributions were at the $50 limit, while only eight percent of Twu’s were. Their average match-requested contribution was just $23.

Most candidates continued submitting matching requests for contributions through October or November. The two incumbents, Harrison (District 4) and Droste (District 8), however, hit their public funding caps early and stopped submitting matching requests in April and June respectively. Ninety-two percent of their match-requested contributions came in the form of $50 donations.


The Berkeley Fair Elections public funding program underwent its first test in the 2018 election. Our analysis shows that the program effectively met its goals: it empowered candidates to run for office based on the strength of their community support, reduced the influence of special interests in Berkeley elections, and amplified the voices of small donors in the political process. Programs like this set the stage for governments that better represent the interests of the people and democracies in which wealth doesn’t control access to political voice.

1Berkeley uses a ranked choice voting system. This means that all candidates run in November without a primary.

2 At least one of the remaining four candidates was disqualified from participation in the Fair Elections program due to a minor error: they had loaned $100 to their campaign—necessary to open a checking account at many banks—violating the $50 contribution limit. This type of error was remedied in amendments passed by the Berkeley Fair Campaign Practices Commission and City Council following their review of the program in 2019.

3 Since this data comes from candidates’ matching fund requests, there are no comparable numbers for the 2014 or 2016 elections. Note also that because matching fund requests were limited to contributions from Berkeley residents, this number excludes small donations from non-residents, as well as small donations to candidates who had already reached the maximum amount disbursable from the Fair Elections program.


The most recently amended campaign records were retrieved from Berkeley’s public Netfile portal on October 29, 2019. Contribution matching requests were retrieved from the same source on October 30, 2019. Candidates’ total contributions for a given election cycle include monetary, non-monetary, and unitemized contributions received between January 1st of the year prior to the election through December 31st of the election year. Loans were not included in the contributions.

Unique contributors were estimated by grouping contributions by donor first name, last name, and zip code. All discussions of resident contributors were based on whether the donor reported a Berkeley address. Maps including zip code outlines were retrieved from DataSF.

The contribution matching request data relies on candidate-submitted records and includes some donations that were not matched by the city. Analysis of match-requested contributions is thus not equivalent to public funds granted. Duplicate contributions within the matching request forms were not removed.