Posted by County Supervisor Sue Frost
I think we need to make it easier for you to vote me out of office. Yes, you read that right – and no, I haven’t lost my mind. Right now, it is far too easy to get re-elected to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. In fact, it’s so easy to get re-elected that no county supervisor has lost their re-election campaign in over 50 years. This is not a good thing for the voters, and creates a scenario where county supervisors have virtually no fear of ever losing their job. My colleagues and I should have to work hard every day to prove to you that we are doing a good job - the voters of our county deserve nothing less.
The reason for this absurdly high job security is complex with no single answer, but I believe a major factor creating this dynamic is how our campaign finance laws are written. Right now, a candidate running for county supervisor is not allowed to receive any contribution over $500 from an individual. This was undoubtedly a well-intentioned law when it was written, designed to make it easier for “political outsiders” to be able to compete with “insiders,” but over time the political atmosphere has evolved and this law ironically makes things worse. Allow me to explain why.
Sacramento County cannot stop an individual from donating money to help someone win their election, we can only limit how much money they can directly contribute to their campaign. The Supreme Court has ruled that people can donate unlimited amounts of money if they spend the money on behalf of a candidate, rather than directly giving it to them. As such, during competitive county supervisor races, a group will form and give themselves a vague name like “Citizens for a Better Future for Sacramento” and then spend tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to help a candidate. This is called an independent expenditure (IE).
While anybody can form an IE, the reality is that only special interests have the resources to do it. Some of these IEs are upfront about who they are and why they support a candidate. But some are shadowy organizations funded by wealthy out-of-state donors that hide their intentions. And often these IE’s push messages that the candidate would never approve on their own.
This dynamic makes it harder for regular citizens to help a candidate, while political insiders continue to donate the same amount as they normally would have. Further, our low contribution limits have caused IEs to become more and more prevalent in Sacramento County elections. Many recent board of supervisor elections have seen more money spent by IEs than by the actual candidates themselves, something I learned first-hand during my 2016 supervisor campaign.
Not only does this rising prevalence of IE usage make it harder for outsiders to compete, but it also makes it harder for citizens to know who is donating to a candidate. If someone donates directly to a candidate, it would only take you a few clicks of a mouse to find out that information online. To find who has contributed to an IE takes significantly more work, and even if you were to find that information you may discover that the IE donated to numerous candidates at the same time, which only makes the issue more confusing.
You may be thinking that even if we raised the contribution limits, IEs would still have a dominating effect on elections – but history shows that is simply not the case. Time and time again we have seen that contribution limits don’t reduce the influence of money on elections – it just pushes underground into shadowy IEs. Donors prefer to donate directly to candidates rather than using IEs. Even billionaire George Soros recently donated around $400,000 directly to district attorney candidate Noah Phillips instead of using an IE.
Our $500 donation limit is not normal. Sacramento County supervisors have one of the lowest limits for political offices in Sacramento County, second only to Folsom who will be voting later this year to potentially raise theirs. The cities of Citrus Heights, Rancho Cordova and Elk Grove don’t have limits. There’s no limit on sheriff, district attorney, or assessor either – and the limit for Sacramento mayor is $3,350.
I personally feel our low donation limit is bad for democracy and accountability, but I am your representative and do not want to push for raising/eliminating contribution limits unless the voters of my district tell me they want me to. Every time I write one of my columns I get dozens of e-mails from people who tell me how they felt about what I wrote, and I respond to each one of them. But this time, more than ever, I want you to tell me how right or wrong I am. I’m listening, and your opinion means a tremendous amount to me. E-mail me at SupervisorFrost@saccounty.net.
Sue Frost represents the 4th District, which includes all or part of the communities of Citrus Heights, Folsom, Orangevale, Antelope, Rio Linda, Elverta, Gold River, Rancho Murieta, North Highlands, Carmichael, Foothill Farms, Fair Oaks, and Rancho Cordova.