This month Seattle passed an unusual per-employee “head tax” on high-grossing businesses to help the city fight homelessness. It was just the latest example of how Seattle has embraced the role Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis envisioned for states and cities to act as “laboratories of democracy” in America’s federalist system.
In another bold experiment, Seattle last November held the first elections in the country where candidates had the option to fund their campaigns with democracy vouchers. Evidence shows that the new program is already giving Seattleites — rather than deep-pocketed outsiders — greater influence over their city’s elections.
Democracy vouchers are a form of public campaign financing. The city gives every voter registered in Seattle four vouchers worth $25 each. Voters can assign their vouchers to any candidate that opts in to the program. To participate, candidates must abide by spending limits and prove their support in the community by raising a certain number of $10 contributions. The program was partially rolled out in the 2017 elections, when candidates for three city offices were able to collect vouchers for the first time.
A new study by Free Speech for People found that candidates who participated in the voucher program raised significantly more of their money from Seattle residents, as compared to privately-financed candidates in 2017 and in 2015. Across all the candidates in the general elections for the two voucher-eligible city council seats, participants in 2017 raised 93 percent of their funds from Seattle residents. This share was up significantly from elections for the same seats in 2015, when candidates — including some of the same individuals — together raised only 76 percent of their funding from city residents. The trend held true for different offices, incumbents, and challengers.
The study is necessarily small, since only a handful of candidates have yet participated in the new voucher program. But it adds to the body of evidence about the democracy-enhancing benefits of vouchers, and points the way toward further research.
Prior studies have found that Seattle’s voucher donors are more likely to be women, people of color, and lower income-earners than traditional private-money donors. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission showed that the program increased the number of contributors who hailed from Seattle. And the program has created an entirely new set of donors: a remarkable 90 percent of voucher users had never before donated to a city candidate.
These results are consistent with studies that have shown how other forms of public funding can make elected officials more accountable to average constituents, rather than the biggest donors. America’s laboratories of democracy have the potential to discover new ways for campaign finance systems to achieve a more representative government. The Brennan Center encourages scholars to continue to study Seattle’s experiment.
Ian Vandewalker is a Senior Counsel at the Brennan Center, focusing on campaign finance reform.
Purchasing Power: The Conversation
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The views expressed by blog contributors are the authors’ own and not necessarily the views of the Brennan Center.