Data

Face-to-Face, Online, or Both?
Both
Spectrum of Public Participation
Involve
Open to All or Limited to Some?
Open to All With Special Effort to Recruit Some Groups
Facilitation
No
Level of Polarization This Method Can Handle
High polarization
Level of Complexity This Method Can Handle
Very High Complexity

METHOD

Seattle Democracy Vouchers Program

October 10, 2021 tomlatkowski
Face-to-Face, Online, or Both?
Both
Spectrum of Public Participation
Involve
Open to All or Limited to Some?
Open to All With Special Effort to Recruit Some Groups
Facilitation
No
Level of Polarization This Method Can Handle
High polarization
Level of Complexity This Method Can Handle
Very High Complexity

Every resident gets 4 "democracy vouchers," each worth $25. Residents can give vouchers to local candidates they support. Candidates redeem them with the government for campaign funds. This diversifies donors, lets more candidates run, and boost engagement and turnout.

Problems and Purpose

[Much of the following is excerpted or taken from the Democracy Policy Network's Democracy Vouchers policy kit, which can be found here: https://democracypolicy.network/agenda/open-country/open-government/democracy-vouchers]

Running for office is expensive. In 2018, the average congressional incumbent raised $1.5 million for their re-election. Even in less expensive state legislative races, many candidates raise well over $150,000. These high costs create a structural barrier for many challengers, particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds who lack wealthy social networks. 

For those who get elected, staying competitive means spending up to half the work day in “call time” — dialing big donors for campaign donations. This endless fundraising distracts lawmakers from the job. Many elected officials have admitted that fundraising negatively impacts their job performance. One lawmaker told researchers that “members making decisions cannot devote serious quality time to serious decisions.” Another stated that “[fundraising] crippled my ability to do my job properly.” 

Constant fundraising also skews legislators’ perceptions of public opinion. Men, white people, conservatives, and millionaires are dramatically overrepresented in the donor class. While evidence that specific donations buy specific votes is limited, it would be unreasonable to say that spending hours each day listening to the concerns of big donors has no effect on politicians’ views of what the public supports. Given this, it is not surprising that various studies have found that elected officials are most responsive to the policy priorities of wealthy Americans.

The perception that politicians care only about donors also drives widespread public cynicism and disengagement, creating a vicious cycle where the public at large drops out of politics while the wealthy stay engaged. According to Gallup, 75% of Americans believe corruption is widespread throughout the government. It’s no wonder 85% of Americans think the campaign finance system needs “fundamental changes” or must be “completely rebuilt.”

In the past, advocates have tried to design campaign finance systems that block the distorting effects of money in politics by lowering contribution limits and restricting PAC spending. Many of these attempts have been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Even when they have gone into effect, contributors find new ways to circumvent. An additional approach is needed.

Seattle is the first US jurisdiction to launch a democracy vouchers system. After a ballot initiative passed, a democracy vouchers system was implemented in Seattle’s 2017 and 2019 municipal elections. While big-dollar fundraising is still legal for candidates who opt-out of the voucher program, many problems that result from campaign finance have diminished in the last two elections. Donors are now more representative in terms of race, income, and age, and more evenly distributed throughout the city. Voter engagement has increased, for after using vouchers, people become more likely to vote. In part, this is because candidates are incentivized to talk to ordinary people more, as everyone is worth $100 (the value of Seattle’s vouchers), regardless of their disposable income. New and diverse candidates can run for office and win—with many reporting they could not have raised enough money without vouchers. Most candidates have used vouchers, including most winners: eight of nine sitting council members, for example, used vouchers in their last election.

A functioning democracy requires the engagement of ordinary people, as voters, donors, and candidates. A democracy vouchers system helps meet this requirement not just by limiting big money, but by increasing small money. Every citizen is empowered to donate and every candidate is empowered to use whatever network they have, no matter how economically disadvantaged, as a fundraising base. Plus, since you can enforce extra regulations on candidates who opt-in to soliciting vouchers, the system can enforce spending limits, contribution limits, and disclosure requirements on more candidates and races. By helping make the campaign for donations better resemble the campaign for votes, a democracy vouchers system deepens American democracy.

Origins and Development

After a 2013 ballot initiative on public matching funds failed in Seattle, advocates regrouped, deciding to try to pass the country's first democracy vouchers system in 2015. Advocates were successful, passing the "Honest Elections Seattle" initiative on the November ballot with 63% of the vote.

The Seattle Ethics & Elections Commission (SEEC) was tasked with administering the program, starting in the 2017 election cycle. In 2016, the SEEC began implementation, taking deliberate steps to promote community involvement and ensure many people used their vouchers.

Focus groups

Leading up to the first use of vouchers in 2017, the SEEC conducted focus groups in four different communities. 95% of focus group participants had not heard of the program and 65% “had never contributed to a candidate or campaign.” These discussions helped voucher administrators determine baseline public awareness, opinions, and misconceptions about the program. This information was used to inform Seattle’s messaging strategies.

Communication and messaging

On first use, many residents and candidates had heard of the voucher program, making it essential that the SEEC invested in messaging for candidates and for residents on what vouchers are and how to use them. Eighteen months before Seattle’s first voucher election, the SEEC began producing content on “how to run for office using Democracy Vouchers,” and answering questions from potential candidates. Twelve months before the first voucher election, Seattle sent an informational mailer to 340,000 Seattle residential addresses with basic information about vouchers.

Each election cycle since, the SEEC has spent ~$1,000 on social media advertising (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Nextdoor ads), reaching over 100,000 people, and ~$2,500 on printing and placing posters in business districts. Five months before each election, Seattle launches a “mid-year reminder campaign” to encourage residents to use their vouchers and remind them they can get replacements if lost. The city also produces short how-to videos on receiving, assigning, and returning vouchers.

Accessibility and community involvement

The SEEC hosts a website where users can learn about program rules and eligibility, apply for and submit vouchers, and learn about candidates. In 2017, Seattle’s website received nearly two million unique page views. Seattle also implemented a hotline for questions, which averaged 1500 calls per election cycle.

The SEEC has tried to engage traditionally underrepresented groups by administering the program in multiple languages and working with community groups that can spread information about the program. In Seattle, the voucher program was administered in 15 languages, meaning key materials and advertising were translated and support was available in each language. Seattle worked with ten community-based organizations, conducting or attending 276 outreach events, including candidate forums, cultural events, and leadership group meetings, in order to access “hard-to-reach communities.” Seattle also worked with community groups to craft messaging to underrepresented communities, such as adopting edits from several groups to the non-citizen voucher application form.

Participant Recruitment and Selection

For donors

Any legal resident of Seattle who is at least 18 years old can receive and use democracy vouchers. Registered voters receive vouchers automatically in the mail, since their addresses are on file with the city. Other eligible voucher users can apply to receive vouchers (either physically or digitally).

For candidates

Candidates can choose to opt-in to the democracy vouchers program (thus being allowed to accept vouchers, but also being held to extra program rules), or to opt-out (and run their campaign under the old system). To opt-in, candidates must raise a requisite number of small contributions to signal the seriousness of their candidacy, and must sign a document agreeing to comply with program rules.

Candidates who opt-in can still receive private contributions, though contribution limits are decreased for voucher candidates in some races. Voucher candidates also face aggregate limits on their campaign spending, and are required to participate in public debates.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Seattle's program had two official goals: increase the number of donors, and increase the number of candidates. Both goals were achieved. In 2017, Seattle saw a 300% increase in the number of donors. In 2019, the number of donors again more than doubled. Further, more candidates, and more diverse candidates, have started to run and win. For example, after the 2021 election, Seattle will have its first person of color as mayor (both finalists for mayor are people of color, and both opted-in to the democracy vouchers program).

Further, donors are now more diverse across race, income, and age. Prior to democracy vouchers, Seattle donors were overwhelmingly wealthy, white, and had houses with views of the water. With vouchers. Today, Seattle's donors are reflective of Seattle as a whole.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

When every voter is a potential $100 donor, candidates are incentivized to talk to as many people as possible rather than prioritizing call time with the wealthy few. In individual conversations, many voters report that their doors had never been knocked on by a candidate before democracy vouchers went in place.

Studies show that those who use vouchers become substantially more likely to vote. One study found that low propensity voters who used vouchers were 7.4 times more likely to vote in 2017, and that non-voters who used their vouchers were 10.2 times more likely to vote. Thus, beyond just where campaign dollars come from, using democracy vouchers to incentivize candidates to talk to as many people as possible is a very effective means of boosting voter turnout and political engagement.