EDITOR’S NOTE: In an earlier version of this article, a potential condition of the voucher program was mistaken for one currently in use. We regret the error.
An assault on democracy is advancing at the state level, as bills making voting harder are considered in 18 state legislatures. These bills are brazen and extreme, but this interstate campaign isn’t new—it’s the latest attempt in a decades-long effort to make our democracy less accessible to regular people.
We must fight these bills, but simply defending democracy is not enough. We must also expand democracy to include more people in every part of the process. A new “democracy vouchers” program out of Seattle offers one way to do that.
Along with voting, campaign finance is central to today’s struggle for democracy. Even before the Citizens United decision, a small group of wealthy donors dominated campaign funding. This isn’t just theoretical: Campaign funding has a direct impact on what politicians do in office. And over the last decade, it’s only gotten worse: more dark money, more Super PACs—even foreign money in our elections—all of which corrode our democratic system.
For the past six years, Seattle has experimented with a new system of campaign finance—and the results are promising. The idea is simple: Every resident gets four democracy vouchers, worth $25 a piece, that they can give to candidates, who then redeem those vouchers with the government for campaign dollars. Seattle passed democracy vouchers in 2015, and it’s been used in all three election cycles since.
There’s one extra bonus: voucher programs can force candidates to stop taking money from companies and huge donors. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled that bans on special-interest spending are unconstitutional. But there’s no rule against incentivizing candidates not to accept the money — cities and states can make rejecting corporate cash a condition of receiving democracy vouchers.
Under most campaign-finance systems, fundraising predetermines who can run for office. You don’t just need charisma and good ideas—you need wealthy connections. That’s why so many politicians are lawyers, a profession with fundraising connections, and so few are teachers or truck drivers.
With democracy vouchers, you don’t need a wealthy fundraising network, because any network is a fundraising network. Candidates can skip the big-dollar dinners and hours of call time. Instead, fundraising can be like get-out-the-vote operations: knocking on doors or attending community events, while requesting democracy vouchers. This is how it has worked in Seattle: Many candidates raise most of their money from ordinary people. Across all the races on Seattle’s ballot this fall, five of eight general election candidates have raised more from vouchers than from all private contributions, including both finalists for mayor.
Vouchers are equally transformative for donors. Today, donors tend to be rich white men: Big donors, in particular, are over 90 percent white, and 15 times as likely to be millionaires as an average citizen. But when everyone can “donate” vouchers, donors become more representative by race, income, and age.
Harder to measure, but equally important is how vouchers can lessen political cynicism. Today, 75 percent of Americans believe government corruption is widespread. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re conspiracy theorists: Actual studies show that elected officials are more responsive to the interests of their donors than to the interests of their constituents. Many bemoan the falling trust in government, but few have concrete solutions. Democracy vouchers offer a viable way to rebuild trust, by ensuring that politicians are responsive to the people, not just to their rich donors.
Some might raise concerns about spending public money to fund campaigns. But democracy vouchers are just not that expensive, especially relative to the benefits of having policy that better reflects the will of the people. Seattle spends $3 million a year on its program—less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city budget. Costs will vary by location, but estimates suggest that other cities and states should expect something similar—a fraction of a percent of their budget.
Americans are ready to fix campaign finance. In polling, the main point of disagreement is whether our system needs to be “completely rebuilt” or just needs “fundamental change.” Democracy vouchers won’t solve every problem. We could use a more enlightened Supreme Court, and a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. But we shouldn’t wait: With democracy vouchers, cities and states can make their campaign finance systems more open and equitable.