‘Democracy Vouchers’ Put Free Campaign Cash in the Hands of Voters
Seattle voters are about to get their democracy vouchers for this year’s city council elections: envelopes of $25 gift cards that voters direct to their choice of local political campaigns.
Every February of municipal election years, Seattle voters receive four $25 “democracy vouchers” — blue slips of paper totaling $100 on which voters can write in candidates and direct public funds to those campaigns.
Since Seattle voters approved democracy vouchers in 2015 and the city implemented the program two years later, the taxpayer-funded donations have made elections more competitive, and campaign contributions have come from an increasingly diverse group of voters, said Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which administers the program. Seattleites pay $3 million in property taxes annually to fund the program.
“Elections are supposed to be battles between candidates with different approaches,” Barnett said. “For the longest time, we didn’t have that in Seattle. We had different candidates with different resources at their disposal, and this has changed that.”
Democracy vouchers — also known as democracy dollars in some areas — are aimed at diversifying the pool of local campaign contributors, who tend to be White, older and wealthy. By opening campaign contributions to a broader group of voters, proponents hope to energize local elections, force campaigns to pay attention to more communities and lessen the influence that big-moneyed interests have enjoyed in American politics.
But the program does cost millions and the city must evaluate all its expenditures in light of major policy challenges, including homelessness. The levy for the program must be renewed in the next two years, Barnett said. The Democracy Voucher Program costs the average homeowner about $8 per year.
While democracy vouchers are new, with only Seattle and Oakland, California, adopting them in the past decade, proponents throughout the country are confident that a raft of cities will soon join them, riding a wave of democratic overhauls — such as ranked choice voting — that have gained momentum in recent years.
In November, Oakland became the second major American city to adopt the program. Seventy-four percent of voters approved a ballot initiative adopting “democracy dollars,” in which voters can donate four $25 vouchers starting next year to city and school board candidates.
More than half of the contributions to local elections in Oakland come from outside the city, and those donations from within the city come mostly from the wealthiest residents, said Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause, a statewide voting rights organization that supported the ballot initiative.
People who care about the disproportionate involvement of special interests and wealthy donors have been “kicked in the teeth over and over by the [U.S.] Supreme Court,” he said, in reference to the 2010 Citizens United decision that enabled corporations and other interests nationwide to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.
While democracy dollars won’t solve broader issues within the country’s campaign finance system, Stein argued, it can help.
“What we were looking to do is find a way to democratize our local democracy and bring in the voices of communities who were impacted in a daily way by crime, gentrification, failing schools and other problems,” Stein said. “Democracy dollars felt like a way to build a more equitable and representative democracy.”
The Oakland Public Ethics Commission has until April 2024 to finish implementing the program by designing the vouchers, translating them into several non-English languages and building an online portal to submit vouchers digitally. The program will cost the city $4 million every two years.
Can It Spread?
But proponents don’t want to stop in Oakland. Activists throughout the state, including in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz and other communities, are working to add democracy voucher measures on the ballots in 2024.
Every Los Angeles voter should be able to donate to local political campaigns, said Tom Latkowski, co-founder of LA for Democracy Vouchers, which is spearheading the local effort.
His organization’s research of city campaign finance data showed more than half of campaign contributions for the 2020 City Council races came from people who live outside Los Angeles. The group also found that donations from majority-White ZIP codes gave more than twice as much money than those in communities of color.
“A lot of people are being excluded from the political system because they don’t have the money to donate,” Latkowski said. Democracy dollars could change how candidates campaign, he added. “If this gets adopted, candidates for City Council will be at your door, talking to you, hearing what you have to say because you, the voter, are put in a position of power because they want your democracy voucher.”
The Los Angeles Times editorial board endorsed the idea in November, citing the scandal that rocked its City Council after members were secretly recorded engaging in racist language during the city’s redistricting process.
But some critics object to the efforts. Seattle’s program faced a legal challenge in 2017, when two property owners sued the city, claiming the program was violating their right to free speech by using their taxpayer dollars to support candidates they didn’t choose.
Ethan Blevins, an attorney with the nonprofit public interest law firm Pacific Legal Foundation, who represented the plaintiffs, said that while he has “serious reservations” over whether these programs work in diversifying candidate pools, he has constitutional concerns, as well.
“These property owners were essentially paying for someone else’s campaign contributions,” he said. “Because of the makeup of the Seattle political scene, it meant almost inevitably that at least a portion of that tax money would be going to a candidate that these individuals opposed.”
The Washington state Supreme Court, however, unanimously upheld the program’s legality in 2019.
Proponents who spoke with Stateline credited the spread of these programs to Seattle’s early success with it. But the Seattle program started slowly: When it started in 2017, few voters used the vouchers, aside from races for city attorney and two at-large city council seats, Barnett said.
But soon, Seattleites came around. The vouchers spurred a 53% increase in campaign contributions to $31,000 per 100,000 residents, and a 350% increase in the number of unique donors, driven largely by small contributions, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Public Economics that looked at the first two election cycles in which the vouchers were used.
The findings were “pretty surprising,” said Alan Griffith, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Washington, who co-authored the paper. But, he said, “The program seems to do what the organizers want it to do.”
Indeed, by 2021, the third election cycle since the program’s inception, 7.6% of Seattle voters used their vouchers — “extraordinary” for campaign contributions, said Jen Heerwig, an associate professor of sociology at Stony Brook University. She co-authored a paper last year describing how participation in the program “exploded” among people of color, and residents who are young and with lower incomes.
“It’s really significant,” she said. “These are folks who are traditionally not in campaign finance, not involved in local elections, who are using these vouchers.”
For Barnett, it was the person-to-person outreach done by community groups and campaigns that increased vouchers’ popularity — lessons he has shared with people outside Seattle who are interested in adopting a similar program, including lawmakers in Hawaii and Minnesota.
In Minnesota, Democratic lawmakers are attempting to shepherd through a broad voting rights bill that would include two $25 democracy dollar vouchers for every voter to use in any race in the state.
Democratic state Rep. Emma Greenman, one of the bill’s sponsors, told Stateline the vouchers would modernize an existing campaign finance program in the state that refunds $50 worth of voters’ campaign donations.
“It puts the power of campaigns literally in the hands of voters,” she said. “It’s voters, not special interests and big money. Voters want to know it’s them and not these giant corporations that are funding campaigns.”
A Slow Start
While advocates for democracy vouchers think similar programs will begin to sprout up in communities across the country, the push has had a slow start.
Voters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2019 and Austin, Texas, in 2021 rejected ballot measures to adopt democracy vouchers.
In Austin, democracy vouchers were included among four potential changes laid before local voters. Those included adopting ranked choice voting and moving the mayoral election to coincide with presidential elections. While ranked choice voting and changes to the mayoral election passed, democracy vouchers failed with voters. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, a business group, opposed the measure but didn’t give reasoning.
Roger Borgelt, a former vice chair of the Travis County Republican Party, told The Austin Bulldog in 2021 that such a program would be “wrong.” He added, “You’re taking taxpayer money and using it to pay for someone’s political speech.”
Andrew Allison, co-founder of Austinites for Progressive Reform, a local advocacy group, said he will try to get the measure on the ballot again in 2024, blaming the failed campaign on a low-turnout election and a lack of public education.
“It’ll be less of a climb next time around,” he said. “Like with ranked choice voting, it sounds complicated at first until you realize it gives you more voice and it’s actually easy.”
In 2016, South Dakota voters approved a broad campaign finance and lobbying overhaul ballot measure that in part included democracy “credits,” two $50 vouchers to be donated to participating campaigns. The South Dakota Chamber of Commerce came out against the credits, calling them “nonsensical and flawed.” The Republican-led legislature passed a repeal of the ballot measure the next year.
In lieu of democracy vouchers, New York City, Los Angeles and dozens of other cities have adopted matching programs in which the city, in some cases, will donate six times a voter’s contribution to encourage more voters to participate in campaign finance.