Money in local politics

I read on Chapel Hill Town Councilmember Mark Kleinschmidt's blog that the NC General Assembly is considering allowing Chapel Hill to establish a program for public financing in municipal elections. With some notable exceptions, I actually think Chapel Hill and Carrboro are some of the few places where money does not control local elections. (Mostly, I just want to put a muzzle on Chapel Hill Mayoral candidates.) But if it's an opportunity to show other communities how this can be done, I'm all for it.

I've been a strong supporter of public financing in the past. As it's conceived it would be a voluntary program that would allow candidates to take campaign funds from the Town in exchange for compliance with strict contribution, and spending limits. Candidates taking the money would have to demonstrate public support -- probably by gathering some number of small donations to supplement the public contribution.
- Kleinschmidt 2005: Public Financing for Municipal Elections

Mark also includes a link to the bill's text, but I can't find it on the NCGA web site.


Total votes: 326


bill status on this bill is at
with bill text at

The bill is scheduled for House Local Government Committee #2 at 10 am today (5/2) in Room 425 Legislative Office Building.

Money is an issue even at the Council level (I was outspent by the two closest winners by roughly $5000 each).

Consider asking the candidates this year to adhere to a higher, albeit self-imposed standard:

1) Report all contribution information irrespective of amounts
2) Report ongoing contributions and expenditures as they come in 2a) Report expenditures/contributions as accurately and completely as possible prior to election day
3) Agree to some balance of local vs. "outside" monies
4) Agree to limit post election contributions to retiring pre-election debt

I agree with Ruby that, with a few exceptions, Chapel Hill
Town Council elections have not been decided by money,
nor has the amount of money spent been excessive.
It is ironic that a number of the big spenders (by our
standards) in the past have
lost or have had mediocre performances (e.g., four-year
incumbents who have spent big bucks to finish fourth).
At the other extreme, there have been a few recent superb finishes financed by very little money.
I still chuckle over the local newspapers complaining about
campaign spending while being unable or unwilling to cut
their ad rates.
I think that what makes our situation unique is that there
is no practical way to purchase TV ads, for to buy CH
coverage a candidate would also have to pay for
Raleigh, Durham and Cary. I would support Mark's
bill for public financing, but I really don't think it will have
much of an impact here in CH.

I know you speak from experience on that, Joe. The cost of campaigning depends a lot on the type of campaign that the candidate runs. It does not have to be expensive. And even the expensive campaigns in Orange County have not really gotten expensive (at least not compared to some places).

Still, the system for conducting elections determines something about the outcome (as with all decision making systems). Even a low-cost campaign in Carrboro or Chapel Hill is usually going to cost over $1,000. That is a lot of money to many folks, and if you don't have many middle to upper class friends then it could be daunting to raise that kind of money.

How would past elections have differed if we had had the same field of candidates, all funded equally? Moreover, how would the field of candidates have been different if there had been public financing?

Incumbency can also be worth thousands.

And it can be worth much less when voters are angry and go to the polls in a foul mood. Incumbents as a group can be held accountable for majority decisions.

Should be interesting to test this hypothesis in this election cycle with probable tax increases in Carrboro and Chapel Hill and the claims of those residing in the area annexed by Carrboro to retaliate.

Mark and Joe will both recall the Chapel Hill election when Pat Evans beat Richard Franck by 39 votes. Evans spent more than 4x as much as Franck. Franck did not raise much money and it's not a stretch to conclude that public financing might have changed that result.

Here's what the N&O reported on that race on 2/15/1996:

The candidate who spent the most money won by only 39 votes. Incumbent Pat Evans beat challenger Richard Franck for the final council seat. She spent $7,884, compared with Franck who spent only $1,733.25.

In the mayor's race, Rosemary Waldorf won after outspending newcomer Kevin Foy $8,827 to $4,411. But she was also a council member who had run for mayor in 1991 after being active in civic life for years.

Members of the Orange County Greens and the Orange-Chatham Sierra Club say these two races show that local campaign spending rules need to be changed. Both groups asked candidates last fall to agree to voluntary spending limits. Those that signed pledges stayed under the caps, according to Dan Coleman, a spokesman for the groups.

Coleman said the two groups will urge the council to study changes.

"We think it's important for citizens and government to address the issue of whether money should influence politics," Coleman said. "Of course, we think it shouldn't."

Sorry to be quoting myself... guess I've been hanging around Will too much. ;-)

Fred, that's true if there's something real meaty to dig into - taxes, fiscal irresponsibility, etc. What if there's a series of policy decisions or omissions that have led to an overall poor outcome for the citizenry? In that case, a non-incumbent will have a tougher time bringing folks up to speed.

One of the biggest mistakes I made in 2005 was being too oblique and "inside the ballpark" in my criticism. I should've been much more specific, provided much more context to why I was a better alternative. Further, I let a candidate continue to misrepresent their earlier and current positions, make statements during forums inconsistent with their record, without challenge.

This year those are not mistakes I suggest other candidates make...

Ummm, NOT make. That is if they plan to overcome the incumbent advantage.

Dan and Mark,

Are you going to commit to a voluntary spending limit this year?

Well Will, if they are running against you, of course you want them to make those same mistakes. :-)

Fred, there's a lot of material covering the current incumbents decisions to wade through.

As Tom and Ruby reiterated at the C.A.N. forum, now is the time to get started on your platform. Nick was a little optimistic on the media's coverage (that they would be calling the candidate as they drove back from filing) but candidates should be lining up their 3-4 primary issues.

After that, they need to discriminate how their approach to implementing/managing/etc. would be different than the current crew. If they can't do that, why are they running?

This year could see several distinctive innovations in the process. We've already seen how a poster here on OP has started using "framing" ala the Republicans to set the stage on behalf of their "client". On the positive side, I think the 'net might come into its own in terms of clarifying, educating and expanding upon the candidate's message - again, something that should help against the incumbent advantage.

What would you think would be reasonable, Terri?

Mark asked two excellent questions. Let me speculate.
(I will assume here that the public financing is voluntary,
and that if a candidate chooses to take advantage of it, he
can spend no other substantial funds, and that if a candidate chooses to ignore the public financing, he faces only the restrictions that currently exist. I also assume that the amount provided is about $4,000 for the CH council election.)

"How would past elections have differed if we had had the same field of candidates, all
funded equally?"
This is hypothetical and not realistic. The candidates
who were unlikely to raise large sums would take the
public funds, while those with the
ability and connections would raise their
higher amounts privately.

"Moreover, how would the field of candidates have been different if there had been public
The field may have expanded, but likely only with lower-tier
candidates who had very little chance to win a seat.
Raising a half-dozen thousand dollars doesn't necessarily require rich friends; it requires a large number of friends.
Money-raising results provide the first objective
feedback to a campaign, both in amount and in
variety of sources. If ample funds come
from a wide variety of donors from different walks
of life, the candidate has an
superb potential.
A candidate who can't attract a large number of small donations likely won't be able to
attract a large number of votes.

Mark didn't ask the question "How would the results
have changed with a voluntary public financing
mechanism?", so I will. I think that little would
have changed. There have been (infrequent) times
when a very small personnel change in the council
would have had a large impact, so the public
financing mechanism has a value and I would support it,
but I doubt that it will have much effect.

A much more interesting, and in some respects more fair,
mechanism would be a mandatory public or private
system by which every candidate is required to spend
exactly the same amount of money in his/her campaign.
This is like the stock car series at the OC Speedway
in which all the cars are equal, only the drivers
vary. I'm not holding my breath waiting for this, however.

Yes, Joe. Indeed, the US Supreme Court has held that public financing systems must be optional. Therefore candidates must be provided the option of spending higher amounts from private sources.

Joe, it doesn't necessarily follow that the amount of money raised, even if from a number of contributors, indicates support. It might mean a candidate is a lousy fund-raiser or doesn't like asking for something they can provide themselves or that they have, as you pointed out, little support.

Having read through quite a few local campaign reports in the last 6 years (some older), it's obvious money follows incumbency. Does that necessarily mean the incumbents reflect the values of the community better or does it boil down to a horse race - picking those horses with an advantage, in this case incumbency, over their fellow runners?

To illustrate, for instance, how would your metric apply to Mike Nelson's BOCC race?

Speaking of Mike, though I supported his run, I was concerned about his pattern of campaign contributions. What do folks think about that?

One step beyond Mike. What of candidates that have sufficient funds already and decide to sit the cycle out? Or what of those candidates raising a lot of local money, maybe with the knowledge of their contributors, to build a war chest for pursuit of higher office? What does that mean?

I only have my own experience to judge from. I started very late - end of August with around 50 letters, mid-Sept. with another 150 or so. In a year graced by both the Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, I felt kind of guilty trying to tap folks for money when others needed it much worse.

Initially, I only approached folks I thought could "afford" the luxury of doing both. Later in the campaign I was tepidly convinced by several folks that this was not a good strategy based on Joe's line of thought (money equals strength) but by then it was kind of late in the cycle. Even then, I was pretty passive about asking - putting a donation button on my site and referring folks to it.

As far as how much? It took one incumbent more than double what I raised and spent to win by 780 votes. Using that benchmark, then, let's pretend $6-8 per vote is reasonable. Then in an election with a turnout of 5,000 would mean $30,000-$40,000.

What's a reasonable sum per vote then? Let's take the highest spender from the last Council election and divide by the total turnout. That gives you about $1.40 per vote cast. Is that more reasonable?

Will's guess at a reasonable sum per vote cast seems
reasonable, but I would rather use the statistic of
cost per number of votes for the candidate. In 1995
as a four-year incumbent, I spent $6700 to garner
5241 votes, about $1.30 per vote. I remember that
my spending was in the middle of the pack, and no one
critiqued me for excessive spending.

I don't have the exact figures before me, but at the
high extreme was Diane Bachman's failed run a few years ago, spending about $17,000 to receive about 3000 votes, ballpark $6 per vote.

In 1999, I raised a little under $5,000 and got 2,346 votes, so about $2 per. The winners that year (Ward, Bateman, Strom, & Evans) got between 3,749 and 3,238 votes. Most of them probably spent more than me, but I don't think money would have helped my cause much (unless I could have bribed Kirk Kicklighter). I really just needed to talk in person to about 1,000 more people!

About $1.33 per each of my 2336 votes ;-)

Joe, I think in 1995 I probably spent about $3,000 and I got somewhat less than your 5241, so I was probably spending about $0.75 or less per vote. But it was an easy re-election for both of us that year. It takes more resources to be a challenger.

I think Joyce Brown spent an unreportably low amount (less than $500) on her re-election in 1993 and she garnered 4,500 or more votes in that election as I recall. That would be around a dime per vote (possibly less). Although even when Joyce was a challenger in 1989, she won by spending about $0.50 per vote.

Joyce capped her spending in 1989 at $500 and received 3000 some-odd votes. Around $0.16/vote. Her only expenses, as I recall, were printing flyers and buying some poster board and markers for a sign painting party.

Public financing of campaigns is an excellent idea. Ornage County should be at the head of this movement. Certainly, the cost of running for local town offices is not extremely expensive and certainly not prohbitive to many people, but it is to some. Young people often do not have the financial resources to run for office. They may not be able to raise a few thousand dollars. It would be very beneficial to the Chapel Hill community to have a local official who was a recent UNC graduate and could share that perspective. Public financiing could help to amke this happen.

In 99 we were looking to move from Durham to CH, and I could swear that my wife and I were pamphleted by you downtown. I guess it could have been someone else, but from what little I remember it seems it almost certainly had to be you. Down in front of the bank on Franklin Street as I recall. Don't know why this stuck in my brain all these years, maybe because I was excited about moving somewhere where politics was out on the streets.


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