Can “democracy dollars” prevent real political dollars?

Teresa Mosqueda spent her days asking people to run for office. A third-generation Mexican-American union and leader from Seattle, she believed that the most effective way to solve the problems of working families was to encourage those who had once tested them to enter politics. But when people asked her to run, Mosqueda refused, citing an obstacle most Americans faced: She couldn’t afford it.

That changed when she learned about the Democracy Bonds –a taxpayer funded program which sends Seattle residents four $ 25 certificates to give to local applicants. This meant that more people could contribute to local campaigns and more people, like Mosqueda, could come forward.

Adopted in 2015 by a voting initiative, the Seattle voucher program was the first of its kind in the country. Asking for large donations is uncomfortable for many candidates, says Mosqueda, now a member of the city council: “I don’t personally know people who have $ 5,000 to give. Now, vouchers mean applicants no longer have to rely on donors with such significant financial resources. “You don’t want to feel indebted to wealthy corporations or individuals,” she says.

As the last two Seattle City Council elections show, the program has not stopped the the influence of these mega-donors, nor has it radically diversified Seattle’s donor base, which is primarily drawn from an older white population. But research published in 2019 in the Journal of electoral law show that it is certainly weakened these influences; voters who donated in the 2017 and 2019 elections in Seattle, voucher users were less wealthy than cash donors.

Now, as Seattle introduces democracy vouchers into its mayoral race, the city aims to further dilute the influence of major donors (Amazon donated $ 350,000 to help elect final mayor) by attracting more cubs. And while other municipalities, like new York and Washington, DC, are trying to democratize campaign finance by matching and scaling up small donations, critics say these programs are much less accessible. “You always have to have your own money to participate,” says Brian McCabe, one of the researchers who led the 2019 study.

Indeed, the program’s greatest success, according to McCabe and his co-author Jen Heerwig, is perhaps the large number of donors it attracts. Almost 8% of Seattle voters donated to local candidates in 2019, up from just 1.3% in 2015. That makes Seattle the national leader in local campaign finance “by far,” says McCabe.

“There is a feeling that the system is not working as expected and that ordinary people – whether progressive, independent, conservative – are not represented.”

A recent poll of over 1,000 voters conducted by HarrisX for political news site The Hill found that 57% think the US political system only works for insiders with money and power. While Seattle aims to directly encourage campaigns by people without these perks, many other US cities are questioning whether the democracy vouchers are an answer to this problem.

Andrew Allison, founder of the Austinites for Progressive Reform political action committee in the Texas capital, recently collected the 20,000 signatures needed to get a ballot vouchers initiative in May.

“In Austin, about 70% of donations come from just three of our 10 districts,” says Allison. “And that kind of donor focus doesn’t quite match the idea of ​​one person, one vote.”

Spread the word

In 2019, four of nine first-time Seattle city council candidates said they would not have run without the democracy vouchers, according to a 2020 BERK Consulting report. This year, out of the 12 mayoral candidates confirmed at the start of April, eight accepted the vouchers, including Colleen Echohawk.

“I come from a community where we often cannot contribute to political campaigns,” says Echohawk, who would be the town’s first Indigenous mayor. “If I could donate it would be like $ 10.”

Echohawk prominently features democracy vouchers on its website and Instagram. But she says many of her followers still have “no idea what they are.”

This is perhaps the biggest flaw in the program; in 2019, less than 40,000 Seattle residents, or roughly 5% of the population, used their vouchers. Many seem to confuse them with junk mail. Although Seattle residents can opt for virtual vouchers or request replacements online, most still do not know the program exists. And even democracy vouchers wonder why all Seattle landowners should pay – albeit only $ 8 a year – for a program used by a slim minority.

“If you still have super PACs and private funding for candidates, I don’t think that’s a good way to get money out of politics,” says Paul Gessing, CEO of the Rio Grande Foundation, who was exalted when a democracy voucher proposal has been defeated in his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2019.

In 2017, the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian law firm, sued Seattle, claiming democracy vouchers violated its free speech by funneling taxpayer dollars into campaigns it did not support. But the state Supreme Court upheld the program.

Yet most Americans support laws that limit the role of money in politics, according to a 2018 Pew report.

Jack Noland, research director at RepresentUs, a non-profit organization working on campaign finance reform, points out several laws that would help do this, including an anti-corruption law to stop political corruption. But he says voucher programs aim to transform the entire political process, not just the outcome, by encouraging candidates to reach a wider range of voters.

As proof of the “great interest” of the voucher program, he underlines the For the People’s Law recently passed by the US House of Representatives. It includes a program that good democracy pilots for congressional candidates in three states, to be chosen by the Federal Election Commission. “Across partisan lines,” says Noland, “there is this feeling that the system is not working as intended and that ordinary people – whether they are progressive, independent, conservative – are not represented.”

Julia Hotz is a journalist who tells the story of what works to solve social problems.

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