Why candidates should embrace public campaign finance system

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has decided that the first policy proposal for her presidential campaign would be aimed at reducing the influence of big money in politics, a signal of the increasing prominence of democracy reform in the 2020 race and the importance of addressing systemic issues that prevent progress on a host of other hot button issues.

Gillibrand introduced an ambitious proposal this month to give $200 in “democracy dollars” to eligible voters who could contribute the funds to candidates in federal elections. Considering how fewer than 0.5 percent of the United States population gave a contribution over $200 to federal candidates in the 2018 midterms, her proposal could broaden citizen participation in federal campaigns, which research shows are funded disproportionately by a wealthy homogenous slice of the population.

While this initiative by Gillibrand may seem novel, it is modeled on an existing campaign finance system, the Democracy Voucher Program in Seattle, which launched two years ago after 63 percent of city residents voted for its creation in 2015. The Seattle program provides city residents with $100 in democracy vouchers to contribute to their preferred local candidates for municipal office. Contrary to some claims by critics of the proposal of Gillibrand, the Seattle program yielded impressive results in 2017 and significantly expanded citizen participation in local campaigns.

{mosads}Over the course of a single election, the Seattle voucher program caused a dramatic dip in candidates relying on major contributions. In the 2013 Seattle election, before the program was established, small donations of under $250 made up just 48 percent of the total fundraising haul of city candidates. But as a result of this program, 87 percent of the support for 2017 candidates came from small donations and democracy vouchers.

The Seattle program also spurred political engagement among a larger and more demographically representative portion of the city electorate. According to the University of Washington, over 20,700 residents used their vouchers to give to local candidates in 2017. Naysayers assert this figure represents only a small part of the eligible city population, but it marks more than a 250 percent increase over the number of contributors back in the 2013 Seattle election, when only about 8,200 residents gave.

In addition to increasing the absolute number of city residents who had contributed, the Seattle program attracted a far more diverse makeup of donors to local campaigns. Compared to individuals giving a private cash contribution in the 2017 Seattle election, voucher users were more likely to be low to middle income and to reside in the poorest neighborhoods. Furthermore, the population of voucher users contained a higher share of minority groups and city residents under age 30 than the private cash contributor pool. A separate study similarly found that 84 percent of the contributors to local candidates in 2017 were first time donors in city campaigns, and 71 percent of these new donors indeed gave vouchers.

Seattle residents who used vouchers were also much more likely to turn out on Election Day than city residents who did not use their vouchers. Almost 90 percent of voucher users voted in 2017, while only 43 percent of Seattle residents who did not use their vouchers cast a vote that year. Notably, the improved voter turnout held even after controlling for voting history. Among Seattle residents who had voted in less than half of the prior elections in which they were eligible, voucher users were still four times more likely to vote than city residents who did not use vouchers.

Even as it limited the ability of participating candidates to accept large contributions, the Democracy Voucher Program in Seattle produced viable candidates. All three city races eligible for vouchers were in fact won by candidates who participated in the program, including first time Latina city council candidate Teresa Mosqueda, who had subsequently credited the voucher program as a major factor in her electoral success.

Seattle shows the potential of voucher programs to expand political participation and “democratize” campaign giving across the nation. At a time when most Americans are increasingly frustrated with who gets a say in the political process, the introduction of vouchers in federal elections, as Gillibrand proposes, offers a meaningful alternative to the existing system that relies heavily on big contributions from the wealthy few.

Paul Smith is the vice president of litigation and strategy at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. He teaches at Georgetown Law Center and is a member of the board of directors of the American Constitution Society.

Tags America Democrats Election Finance Government Kirsten Gillibrand Policy

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