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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.