Seattle's got the best green
Democracy Vouchers: the good and the bad
Making a “Grey’s Anatomy” meme in 2022 is objectively embarrassing, but I stay true to my roots (photo credit: Emily Duke).
Over the holidays, my plans that weren’t cancelled by the pandemic were then canceled by the blizzard that hit, meaning all I did was watch “Grey’s Anatomy” and think about the intricacies of campaign finance reform.
And what better place to do that than Seattle?
Like in most cities, the people making political donations in Seattle are overwhelmingly wealthy and white. In fact, the best predictor of if you give is whether your house has a view of the water.
To make donating accessible, the city passed an initiative in 2015 that implemented democracy vouchers. Now, before municipal elections, every registered voter automatically gets four $25 credits to donate to candidates running for mayor, city attorney, and city council.
Politicians opt in to the program, and in exchange for the funding, they agree to certain conditions, like rejecting support from a PAC, attending a certain number of public debates, and watching “Grey’s” until the ferry accident, one of at least three times that Meredith has a near-death experience and divines with spirits.
Since electoral reformers tend to over-promise (LOOKING AT U, RCV-istas), I was skeptical that a relatively small amount of money could have a real effect. I was wrong.
Of the eight city council candidates who advanced to the general election, six of them used democracy vouchers, as did all of the city attorney candidates and the winning mayoral candidate. Overall, the number of campaign contributors more than doubled, and low-propensity voters who used a democracy voucher were at least 4.5 times as likely to vote than LPVs who didn’t.
Turnout bumps are usually measured by tenths of a percent, so increasing participation to that degree, especially among people who normally stay home, is an accomplishment the size of. . . what’s an iconically tall Seattle landmark. . . yes — the Fremont bridge troll.
But, does that mean that the idea is ready to go national?
Every city presents its own challenges.
In L.A., reformers hope to get an initiative on the ballot by 2024 but aren’t sure if they’ll go through the city council or through a voter petition. “The benefit of the council is we don't have to run a costly campaign,” says Tom Latkowski of Los Angeles for Democracy Vouchers. “And the benefit of the campaign is you don’t have to go through the council, where you might have to make a few more compromises.”
In Oakland, where 92% of donations come from less than 1% of residents, activists plan to go the council route but still aim for as broad of support as possible. “We're combining the usual suspects on money in politic with organizations that represent a diverse set of Oakland communities, like Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Oakland Rising,” says Jonathan Mehta Stein, the executive director of Common Cause California.
In San Diego, they’re figuring out their outreach strategy and funding source (Seattle uses a $3 million property tax). Unlike ranked choice voting, democracy vouchers don’t have a national organization providing education materials like cute animated videos. “We need a comedian doing a 20-minute monolog about campaign finance,” says Amy Tobia, a local leader for Represent.Us.
And in Austin, they’re hoping to avoid blowback from the infamously trigger-happy state legislature, which has already capped the amount of money cities can raise in taxes They’re also wary of activist judges. “We didn’t want to do anything that could lead to an overly ambitious 5th Circuit or Supreme Court invalidating some or all public financing campaigns in the country,” says Andrew Allison of Austinites for Progressive Reform.
So the question remains: Are democracy vouchers on the verge of being everywhere, like Starbucks, or are they forever confined to the Pacific Northwest, like ferry boats?
And most important of all: When can I expect the episode where Meredith cuts her finger on a voucher and nearly dies?
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How You Can Help
If you want to know more about democracy vouchers, check out Tom’s great book and / or the policy kit from the Democracy Policy Network.
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The Minnesota Political Contribution Refund program operates somewhat like the Seattle program, but it's a bit more cumbersome and it's not localized. Donations to state candidates or state parties ($50 for individuals, $100 for married couples) are refundable, but you have to submit a separate form to be refunded.