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Again, DNC debate moderators fail to ask about democracy issues

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Americans are beyond frustrated with our political system defined by the rich turning their wealth into political influence. And voters across the political spectrum are ready for reform. 

Unfortunately, some in the media fail to take seriously the legitimacy crisis facing our political institutions. This month’s Democratic presidential primary debate—and the analysis that accompanied it—illustrated as much.

Following in the footsteps of NBC and CNN, the ABC News debate moderators did not ask a single question about democracy—nothing about campaign finance, voting rights, or gerrymandering.

A few candidates brought up reform unprompted, most notably Andrew Yang, who reframed a question about climate change to explain how progress couldn’t be made until special interest influence was reduced. To do that, he proposed a “democracy dollars” program in which every American citizen would receive $100 in vouchers to donate to eligible candidates. 

This public financing system—modeled after that in Seattle—has tremendous potential to democratize political influence, yet political pundits reacted with confusion, derision, and condescension. Some mocked the vouchers by comparing them to Shrute bucks, a gag from the sitcom “The Office.” And others bizarrely suggested they would spend democracy dollars for non-political purposes at a strip club and at Olive Garden. This, of course, would be plainly illegal.

A major media outlet even compiled random tweets about democracy dollars in order to somehow suggest the policy was more comic than serious—a claim that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Public financing is the most effective way to decrease the role of big money in politics, for it allows those without wealth to pool together resources to influence elections. As the Supreme Court has largely preempted the ability to cap political spending by the wealthy, public financing is moreover one of the few avenues left to meaningfully improve campaign financing. 

Despite only having been administered since 2017, Seattle’s democracy voucher program has produced encouraging results. In its first use, total number of donors—which included a staggering number of first time local election donors—greatly exceeded previous elections. Those donating vouchers were more representative of the electorate than those giving cash. Vouchers increased the percentage of funds coming constituents and more candidates were able to run because of the program. Anecdotal evidence additionally shows a major shift in how candidates campaign; aspiring politicians now seek out politically marginalized voices.

A handful of public financing systems exist in the United States—all of which are strictly voluntary. In Maine and Connecticut, candidates that collect a specified amount of small dollar donations have their campaigns funded by the government, with no additional private fundraising permitted. In New York City, small dollar political contributions are matched at an 8-to-1 rate. That means a $10 donation becomes $90.

It is still too early to fully assess how a democracy voucher program compares to these other models. Nevertheless, there is no question that it is a legitimate, thoughtful, and potentially transformative policy worthy of mainstream consideration. 

Pundits unfairly delegitimizing Yang’s valuable proposal made democracy’s omission from the debates somehow even worse. The biggest hindrance to reform is the public’s unawareness about solutions that are currently working in cities and states across the country. The public was entitled to a substantive conversation about public financing; instead, it got farce.

Our democracy is in crisis. That the news moderators are ignoring that reality and that pundits make a mockery of solutions is malpractice.

Adam Eichen is an author and campaigns manager at EqualCitizens.US

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