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Voucher-Funded Seattle Candidates Relied More on Constituents than on Non-Constituent Donors

Early evidence shows public financing vouchers that enable all voters to participate in campaign giving encourages candidates to focus more on constituents than on faraway donors.

June 1, 2018

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

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.