Follow the $$: Ins and Outs of Campaign Finance

by Ryann Grochowski | inewsource

San Diego’s primary election is less than two months away, and candidates are raising and spending gobs of campaign cash. Limits on donations, loans and expenditures are strictly governed by the San Diego Ethics Commission, and the rules can be confusing. We’ve put together an occasional series to help you understand local campaign finance law and follow the money yourself. Our first installments tackle self-financing a campaign, contribution limits and campaign literature regulations.

Self-financing a campaign

This year is expected to be a record-breaker in political spending across San Diego. Candidates in some of the city’s most contested elections have already lent and given their campaign large sums of money. Self-loans and donations are good ways to increase a campaign’s bottom line, but there are key differences between the two practices.

Q: What are they?
A: When a candidate lends himself money, he expects to raise enough to pay himself back. When he donates money, that’s money he doesn’t expect to get back. Also, candidates running for office in San Diego can lend themselves only $100,000 at a time, but there’s no limit on how much they can donate to themselves.

Q: Why do candidates give themselves money?
A: There could be a number of reasons. The candidate may simply need the extra money for campaign expenses. But political analysts also say it’s a matter of perception. If it looks like your campaign has a lot of cash, you look more successful and, thus, you’ll raise more from donors.

Q: Who’s doing this in local races?
A: Carl DeMaio, who’s running for mayor, has already lent and given himself quite a bit. He’s donated to his campaign about $390,000 as of March 17. He’s lent himself around $110,000, but has paid about half of that back. DeMaio’s competitors have pitched into their campaigns, too, just on a smaller scale. Bonnie Dumanis has lent her campaign $10,000; Nathan Fletcher has donated $500 to his campaign. As far as perception goes, the mayor’s race is a good example. In raw numbers, Carl DeMaio has raised the most money in the mayor’s race. But if you take away what’s he’s given to himself, Nathan Fletcher’s actually raised more outside cash.

To look up any city candidate’s campaign finance filings, go here.

Donation limits

Q: What limits are placed on donors?
A: San Diego has a pretty low ceiling on contributions. Individuals are limited to giving up to $500 to a candidate per election. That means if you donate $500 to Candidate A in the primary, and she wins and moves on to the general election in November, only then can you donate another $500 to her campaign. Also, only individuals can make donations. Corporations or partnerships are not allowed to contribute to city candidates.

Q: What about the independent expenditure committees that we’ve heard so much about?
A: That’s a little different. With independent expenditure committees, you’re not actually donating to a candidate. You’re donating to a committee that, by law, must not coordinate its efforts with a candidate. And there are no limits on donations to independent expenditure committees in the city. We will have more on independent expenditure committees soon, since they can be complicated.

Q: What are the rules for donations to committees that are for or against a ballot measure?
A: There are no donation limits there, either. The thought is that money can’t influence a ballot measure like it might influence a prospective officeholder.

Disclosures for campaign materials

This is the time of year when voters start finding their mailboxes stuffed with campaign mailers, and their phones ringing with campaign polls and robocalls. Campaign committees have to abide by specific regulations when it comes to telling voters exactly who’s behind those fliers and phone calls.

Q: How can voters find out who’s paid for a campaign filer or door hanger?
A: According to local law, any campaign literature, be it door hangers, news ads, mailers or posters, must say “Paid for by,” followed by the name of the candidate or committee that paid for the materials. It also must disclose the address and city of the committee and candidate, all in 12-point type. That’s different from state law, which only requires 6-point type.

Q: Are there any exceptions?
A: Yes, if fewer than two hundred of the campaign materials are created, there’s no requirement for a disclosure line.

Q: What about telephone calls from campaigns?
A: If a candidate’s committee calls more than 500 voters, the message must say “paid for” or “on behalf of” the candidate. The committee must also keep a copy of the phone message’s transcript, along with a tally of phone calls made, for four years.

Q: If there’s no disclosure on a mailer, is there a place that takes complaints from voters?
A: San Diego city campaign finance law is governed by the San Diego Ethics Commission. You can contact them if you have questions about campaign literature you’ve received.

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