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The biggest City Council race of 2016 is going to be the blockbuster contest between Ray Ellis and either Barbara Bry or Joe LaCava. Whether the Republican Ellis faces Democrats Bry or LaCava in the final, the race will not have many references to either party.

Ellis will insist he’s no arch-conservative. LaCava or Bry will insist they are not uncompromising liberals.

In that spirit, Ellis got a boost recently from Crowdpac, a new site launching in several cities across the country. It has a feature where it takes the data on donations to a candidate and other candidates those donors have supported and puts them on a spectrum from most conservative to most liberal.

The Union-Tribune ran with it and Ellis was pleased to see it put him as the “most centrist” candidate in the race.

Here’s a spectrum Crowdpac generated and some of the featured races it plans to follow. And here’s a Sankey chart to evaluate the kinds of people well-known local donors support. I can play with that for a good hour.

But Crowdpac is a business, and what it’s trying to do to make money is perhaps more interesting than the ranking of the most liberal or conservative local politicians.

It is trying to do to local politics what Kickstarter did to startups. CEO Steve Hilton wants to facilitate billions of small donations to local candidates.

“Crowdfunding political campaigns has the potential to put power back in people’s hands,” he told me. “And right now, there is no crowdfunding platform for politics.”

Crowdfunding is basically a fundraising ploy – though an ingenious one. In involves setting a specific goal for a fundraising effort and a deadline. You collect pledges and, if the pledges meet the goal, then everyone actually pays up.

If the goal is never met, nobody pays. It’s a gimmick, sure, but it would never have been possible without the internet. Technology basically enabled everyone with an idea to test it and potential investors to signal support without having to commit until it reached a critical mass.

But politics is a bit messier. There are strict limits on how much you can give to political campaigns and who can give it (foreign nationals, for instance, need not apply).

Crowdpac pretends to solve all that. It allows candidates to launch their own crowdfunding campaign on the site  or it allows anyone to nominate someone they think could be great. If someone gets nominated but humbly isn’t interested in running, they might think twice about it if support grows. If they eventually do set up a campaign committee, they can collect the pledges as donations.

Crowdpac takes 3 percent, the credit card company takes 3 percent and a facilitator, Democracy Engine, does all the work of reporting and compliance for whatever jurisdiction the donation is in and takes 2 percent. Thus, if you donate $100 to a candidate’s campaign, they’ll get $92. That’s about the standard rate for transactions on crowdfunding platforms across the country. No transaction happens unless the candidate really does decide to run.

But campaign finance laws are a patchwork of complexity across the country. It would be an enormous undertaking to make sure they could facilitate donations everywhere.

“That’s one of the reasons why we think there’s a huge opportunity here – precisely because it is so complex and such a hassle. It is painstaking work,” Hilton said.

While national campaigns like those for Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders have managed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of small donors, the same hasn’t happened in local races.

Or maybe it has. Ryan Clumpner, the executive director of the Lincoln Club, said both Carl DeMaio and Nathan Fletcher surprised many insiders with the support they got in 2012.

Crowdpac could help others see if they have a chance to do the same.

“One of the thing that’s interesting about Crowdpac is this idea that you can do sort of a trial balloon or someone can start a movement around you and raise money that only materializes if you enter the race,” Clumper said.

“That’s a novel concept that would help candidates get some clarity before jumping into the race,” he said.

Gretchen Newsom tried it in her surprising decision to run for mayor. She was the one really testing Crowdpac’s theory.

Until she dropped out of the race late Friday.

Crowdpac will need participation to be successful. Hilton and his team want it to be the place to go to watch a race unfold – almost a sports-like dashboard. If you don’t like how the game is going – maybe you think District 1 needs a socialist, not a centrist – you can jump in or nominate a candidate.

There’s no shortage of ways to donate online and donors are being bombarded with pleas.

But perhaps this can help with the flood.

“There’s no shortage for choices of raising money online and (political) donors are overwhelmed with Internet-based solicitations. But there’s a need for some sort of curation that helps people interested in contributing connect with those candidates who they wish to support in an orderly fashion,” Clumpner said.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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