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Democracy Vouchers Broadened Seattle’s 2017 Donor Base

The results are in from the country’s first ever election publicly funded by vouchers—the 2017 Seattle municipal elections. Heerwig and McCabe find that the city’s Democracy Voucher program has helped bring more donors who are not wealthy into the campaign finance system, but more work remains to achieve a fair and representative system.

  • Jennifer Heerwig
  • Brian J McCabe
May 29, 2018

Last Novem­ber, Seattle conduc­ted its first elec­tions using the city’s new public finan­cing program.  We are now able to analyze how well the program worked.

The Demo­cracy Voucher program, enacted by citizens as part of the “Honest Elec­tions Seattle Initi­at­ive,” provided four, $25 vouch­ers to every registered voter in Seattle that voters could, in turn, assign to the candid­ate(s) of their choice.  Only qual­i­fied candid­ates for City Coun­cil and City Attor­ney were eligible to receive vouch­ers in 2017; however, moving forward, all candid­ates for city­wide office will be eligible to parti­cip­ate in the voucher program.

Advoc­ates for the Demo­cracy Voucher program expec­ted the initi­at­ive to increase the number of Seattle resid­ents parti­cip­at­ing in the campaign finance system and to diver­sify the donor pool by creat­ing oppor­tun­it­ies for under-repres­en­ted communit­ies to fund local elec­tions. In previ­ous campaigns, cash contri­bu­tions over­whelm­ingly came from high-dollar donors in donor-rich neigh­bor­hoods. 

Seattle’s program is the nation’s first attempt to use publicly-funded vouch­ers to finance muni­cipal elec­tions.  Offi­cials from cities around the coun­try are watch­ing to see how effect­ive the program will be in creat­ing more equit­able, fair elec­tions. 

Our analysis of avail­able data offers four key takeaways. For more details, read our policy brief.

  1. The Demo­cracy Voucher program dramat­ic­ally increased the number of Seattle resid­ents parti­cip­at­ing in the campaign finance system. 

In 2013 — the last elec­tion in which a mayoral and City Coun­cil races were contested — 8,234 Seattle resid­ents made a cash contri­bu­tion to a local candid­ate.  In 2017, the number of cash contrib­ut­ors rose to 10,297.

However, 20,727 resid­ents used their Demo­cracy Vouch­ers — more than double the number of resid­ents that contrib­uted cash to a local campaign and four times the number that contrib­uted cash in the 2017 City Coun­cil or City Attor­ney elec­tions.

Although the number of voucher users only repres­ents about 4 percent of eligible users, this is a very substan­tial increase over the number of cash donors in this and past local elec­tions.

  1. Parti­cip­a­tion rates were substan­tially higher among white, middle- and high-income house­holds, and older Seattle resid­entsa pattern that mirrors voter parti­cip­a­tion rates.

Among resid­ents with an income over $75,000 a year, more than 5 percent used the vouch­ers to make a campaign contri­bu­tion.  However, among those with an income below $30,000 a year, the parti­cip­a­tion rate was only 2 percent.

Like­wise, older resid­ents were three times as likely to redeem their vouch­ers as younger resid­ents.  White Seattle resid­ents were almost twice as likely as black resid­ents to redeem their vouch­ers. 

  1. Although redemp­tion rates differed system­at­ic­ally across social groups, voucher users are signi­fic­antly more econom­ic­ally diverse than cash contrib­ut­ors in the 2017 elec­tion.

Compared to cash contrib­ut­ors in the 2017 elec­tion, a larger share of voucher users came from the poorest neigh­bor­hoods in Seattle and a smal­ler share came from the wealth­i­est ones.  In fact, only 22 percent of voucher users came from the wealth­i­est quin­tile of neigh­bor­hoods, but nearly 30 percent of cash contrib­ut­ors came from those communit­ies.

Like­wise, wealthy Seattle resid­ents make up a smal­ler share of voucher program parti­cipants.  Indi­vidu­als with a house­hold income above $100,000 comprise nearly one-quarter of cash donors, but they repres­ent only 16 percent of voucher users.

  1. The Demo­cracy Voucher program helped to move the campaign finance system in a more repres­ent­at­ive direc­tion, but there is more work left to be done.

Although the pool of voucher users is more diverse than the pool of cash donors, it is still not fully repres­ent­at­ive of the elect­or­ate.  For example, resid­ents with an income below $30,000 make up 8 percent of registered voters, but only 4 percent of voucher users.  Seventy-eight percent of registered voters are white, but 86 percent of voucher users are white.

Although Seattle’s new public finan­cing program shif­ted the donor pool in an egal­it­arian direc­tion, there is more work to do to achieve a fair, repres­ent­at­ive system of campaign finance.

Jennifer Heer­wig is assist­ant professor of Soci­ology at SUNY-Stony Brook and an affil­i­ated faculty member at the Depart­ment of Polit­ical Science. She is currently a visit­ing scholar at the Russell Sage Found­a­tion. Brian J. McCabe  is asso­ci­ate professor of Soci­ology at Geor­getown Univer­sity and the author of No Place Like Home


Purchas­ing Power: The Conver­sa­tion

This post is part of the special series designed to provide well-informed comment­ary, fresh ques­tions, and new answers about the facts of money in polit­ics. Dive in to 'Purchas­ing Power: The Conver­sa­tion’ here. 

The views expressed by blog contrib­ut­ors are the authors’ own and not neces­sar­ily the views of the Bren­nan Center.