Seattle’s democracy voucher referendum could dramatically reform money in politics

Next Tuesday, Seattle will vote on Initiative 122, which would democratize the city’s campaign finance system by giving each citizen a set of vouchers that they can choose to distribute among candidates as they see fit.

Here’s how it works, as reported by Mic News:

Money in politics, via Flickr

Money in politics, via Flickr

Under the proposal, every registered voter would receive four $25 coupons in the mail during an election year, for a total of $100. Voters can donate that money to any candidate who has qualified to participate. Participation is voluntary. If candidates opt in, they must first collect a minimum number of small donations to qualify. Then, each candidate is free to collect vouchers and exchange them for city funds money to finance their campaign.

Candidates who participate must abide by a set of rules, including caps on spending (ranging from $150,000 for district city council elections to $800,000 for mayoral races), limits on private contributions, a ban on fundraising on behalf of any independent groups and mandatory participation in at least three public debates. Candidates are also permitted to raise money from traditional sources alongside democracy vouchers, but donations are limited to $250 or $500, depending on the office.

Finally, if a super PAC supports a candidate who is not using the vouchers, candidates in the program are allowed to raise additional private funds and their spending caps are lifted.

Ideas resembling the democracy voucher have been circulating since at least 1993, when Bruce Ackerman argued in favor of giving citizens a “Patriot card” that they could use to distribute public money to candidates of their choice. Ackerman went on to write Voting with Dollars, coauthored with Ian Ayres, which articulated the idea of democracy vouchers more fully in 2004. Lawrence Lessig, who is currently running for president on a campaign finance reform platform, has also championed the idea of democracy vouchers as a way to both publicly finance and democratize our elections. Even libertarians like John Pudner have gotten behind similar ideas, such as allowing citizens to write off political donations as a tax credit, refundable up to a certain small-dollar amount.

There are a number of reasons why democracy vouchers are attractive from a small-d democratic perspective. For one, it changes the incentive structure for candidates, making them more likely to seek the support of and hold themselves accountable to the median voter. There’s a large body of evidence showing that our political system represents donors, not voters; with democracy vouchers, every voter is a potential donor with equal potential value to the candidate. What’s more, by directly engaging voters in the political process early on, there’s every reason to believe that such a system would improve both voter sophistication (how informed voters are going into the election) and voter turnout.

This is because, unlike the case in many public financing systems, democracy vouchers still have to be donated. It’s public money, but it’s still competitive — the amount of money a candidate will be able to raise in a democracy voucher system will track somewhat closely to the amount of support they actually have in the election. This is the exact opposite of the case today, where Jeb Bush is able to lead the Republican primary by a mile in fundraising (when factoring in his super PAC, which everyone should) despite middling and dwindling support in the polls.

All this is to say that democracy vouchers are a great idea that Seattle should absolutely try out. Along with their $15 minimum wage, the city is proving to be one of the few laboratories of democracy on the left — a counterweight to the many, many cities and states on the right that are trying out as many variations of conservative economic and political philosophy that they can.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • mf_roe

    Until Citizens United is struck down everything else is pissing in the wind. Educating voters so they actually understood what and who they are empowering would also solve the problem but is of course not even possible. Our system is corrupted and because it is broken is unable to reform. Prepare to rebuild when the house of cards collapses.

  • keirmeister

    “Finally, if a super PAC supports a candidate who is not using the vouchers, candidates in the program are allowed to raise additional private funds and their spending caps are lifted.”

    This last clause concerns me. I can see a situation where the billionaires would still be able to hold sway over candidates. Still, it sounds like something to at least try. Something has to be better than the crap we have now.

  • Indigo

    Not only does that sound like a workable plan, it also has the advantage of including all voters, not just the True Believers.

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