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Seattle’s radical plan to fight big money in politics

Swamp it with little money.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Listen to this story as an episode of The Impact, Vox’s podcast about how policy affects people.

SEATTLE — Last January, half a million Seattle residents received a small white packet in their mailboxes. Some thought it was junk mail and tossed it in the recycling. Others thought it might be important — the return address showed it came from the government — but forgot about it, letting the envelope gather dust on a side table or desk.

Those who did actually open the envelope, however, found quite a surprise: free money, courtesy of the city of Seattle.

Each packet contained $100 in “democracy vouchers” that voters could donate to local political candidates of their choice. Voters could redeem the money by writing the candidate’s name on one of the blue slips of paper, signing it like a check, and then mailing it back to the city — or handing it to a candidate in person.

“I felt like a bigwig that usually donates all the time,” says Gina Owens, a 60-year-old Seattle resident who is raising her three grandchildren in public housing. She had never donated to a campaign before the democracy vouchers. “Being able to contribute to a campaign like that was really awesome ... like Bill Gates!”

Seattle’s experiment is an unprecedented campaign finance experiment that acknowledges getting big money out of politics is, for the time being, impossible. Recent Supreme Court cases like Citizens United allow wealthy individuals and corporations to funnel unlimited spending into Super PACs.

Instead, democracy vouchers attempt to fight big money by increasing the clout of small money — in Seattle’s case, by sending residents $43 million in potential campaign contributions. Voters get to direct their $100 as they like to candidates running for office in the city.

“I view this more as a way to get people into the process than as a way to get big money out of politics,” says Wayne Barnett, the executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which administers the program. “Frankly, you can’t do that right now, since independent expenditures are protected under the First Amendment.”

Javier Zarracina/Vox

The Seattle project is funded by taxpayer money, so the experiment is fundamentally about public financing. But the bigger question the Seattle experiment poses: Can small money become a dominant force in American politics? In the post-Citizens United era, can it defang the power of big money?

Certain data from Seattle’s experiment suggests the answer may be yes. The number of small donations in Seattle tripled during the cycle when the project launched, from 8,200 in 2015 to at least 25,000 in 2017. The program also shows signs that it’s getting new people involved. The same report estimates that 84 percent of democracy voucher donors had never given to a campaign before.

Still, the data also suggests it’s really hard to bring small donors into the fold — even when the city literally mails out free campaign donations. Only 3.3 percent of Seattle residents who received democracy vouchers actually used them, city statistics show. The other 96.7 percent received free money in the mail, and lost it, forgot about it, or threw it in the trash (or, because its the Pacific Northwest, the recycling bin).

And those donations that did come in were won at significant effort: Seattle spent just about $1 million to stand up the program — to do things like build an office, print the vouchers, and hire staff — in order to bring back $1.1 million in democracy voucher donations.

Barnett now gets phone calls from other cities about whether they should implement the Seattle experiment. He tells them it’s a great program; Seattle is planning to stick with it for the next round of municipal elections. But it also comes with really big trade-offs.

“It is not a cheap program to run,” he says of his advice to other cities. “I think the question is whether [a city] is willing to pay to get more people involved in the political process. It’s kind of a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty kind of thing.”

The Seattle plan: “more money can beat big money”

The idea for Seattle’s democracy vouchers was not born in the Pacific Northwest. Instead, it first showed up on the New York Times op-ed page in November 2011.

It had been nearly two years since the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United ruling, which found that the First Amendment protected wealthy donors’ rights to spend endlessly in support of the political candidates they favored.

Super PACs — which can raise unlimited funds and overtly spend them on behalf of a candidate, so long as the spending isn’t coordinated with the campaign — were quickly becoming a dominant force in American politics. Even in municipal elections like Seattle, independent expenditures that the city couldn’t regulate were on the rise.

This left campaign finance reformers scratching their heads about how to keep big money out of politics, with these independent expenditures strictly off limits.

Harvard professor Larry Lessig had an idea. In his New York Times piece, he outlined a plan for how “more money can beat big money.”

Activists rally against Citizens United, the landmark Supreme Court decision that paved the way for additional campaign money from corporations. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Set Super PACs aside, he argued. They’re untouchable. Instead, focus on getting so many small donations into politics that they overwhelm the influence of wealthy corporations.

“So long as elections cost money, we won’t end Congress’s dependence on its funders,” he wrote. “But we can change it. Almost every voter pays at least $50 in some form of federal taxes. So imagine a system that gave a rebate of that first $50 in the form of a ‘democracy voucher.’”

Lessig outlined a system where federally issued vouchers would finance congressional elections. In return, candidates who wanted to receive these vouchers would have to agree to not accept any donations larger than $100.

This system didn’t exist anywhere. Some cities did have generous public matching programs to increase the reach of small contributions. New York City, for example, will match each every $1 contributed by an individual with up $6 of public financing.

But the idea of just handing out free money? That was unheard of.

Campaign finance is tangled up in policy

Alan Durning launched a nonprofit, Sightline, in 1993 to champion environmental and climate policies. But Sightline kept running into the same problem: Oil companies and other industries had so much money and influence that they easily shut down the policies Sightline was pursuing in the Washington legislature.

The nonprofit made a strategic shift. It decided that in order to actually pass climate policies, it would need to first reform campaign finance policy. Durning looked at the idea Lessig proposed and thought, why not try it?

“There were a bunch of thinkers and scholars who were talking about it, but it had never been attempted in the world. Well, because fools rush in where angels fear to tread, I said, wow, we should try that!” says Durning.

Seattle voters had narrowly rejected a ballot initiative that would have created a public matching system in 2013. Durning began working with those campaign finance reformers to go even further and run a campaign to put democracy vouchers on the 2015 ballot.

“It’s the most egalitarian and transformative model of an alternative way to fund campaigns,” he argues. “Here’s a method where everybody you meet has $100 worth of coupons that can fund a campaign. The whole game could change.”

The Seattle version of Lessig’s plan envisioned providing all residents eligible to donate (not just registered voters but also ex-felons and legal immigrants) with $100 in democracy vouchers.

In order to receive these new vouchers, candidates would have to commit to only accepting cash donations less than $250. Candidates who didn’t participate in the program, meanwhile, could accept donations as large as $500.

And to make sure that vouchers only went to candidates with a serious campaign, those who wished to participate would also have to gather $10 donations from 400 registered Seattle voters, along with their signatures.

The vouchers would be limited to Seattle-specific elections, as a city does not have authority to create a similar program for residents to donate to federal or state elections.

On November 12, 2015 — nearly four years to the day after Lessig’s op-ed ran in the New York Times — democracy vouchers won in Seattle. Sixty-three percent of voters in a ballot referendum supported raising their own property taxes in order to give all people a chance to donate to local campaigns.

“I was pretty terrified”: how Seattle sent residents $54 million in free money

In November 2015, Seattle residents voted overwhelmingly to create a democracy voucher program.

It fell to Barnett to turn the public will into reality — and he had about a year to do it. It was not easy. Barnett discovered that logistical hurdles were a much bigger impediment to the program’s success than the public’s attitude.

“I was excited but also very worried,” Barnett said of the day the voucher program passed. “We had to implement a program to distribute 2 million vouchers, get them back, and make sure they are converted into contributions. So I was pretty terrified.”

Barnett and Rene LeBeau, whom he hired to run the program, faced a litany of unprecedented questions large and small: What should the vouchers look like? How would they convince voters they should open this piece of mail? Should the city include prepaid postage in each packet, increasing the odds that the vouchers would be used, but also increasing the costs?

The city eventually settled on blue-and-white vouchers. It mailed them in white envelopes that said, “Your democracy vouchers are here!” with “$100” in large print on the front, to entice residents into opening the package. And after significant debate, Seattle did include prepaid postage in all of its 563,000 voucher packets, which it believed would lead to more vouchers coming back to the city.

Seattle sent out half a million democracy voucher packets on January 3, 2017 — the first business day of a city election year, just as the ballot initiative directed. Then they waited to see what would happen as $54 million in potential campaign contributions landed in mailboxes across Seattle.

Only 3.3 percent of Seattle residents used their democracy vouchers

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know quite a few things about what happened in the country’s first campaign cycle with democracy vouchers.

For one, a diverse set of candidates were enthusiastic to use them — and this wasn’t guaranteed. In order to accept democracy vouchers, candidates needed to agree to a low campaign contribution limit ($250, rather than the $500 donations they could accept if they didn’t participate in the program).

“My concern was that we were going to mail out 2 million vouchers and there were going to be no candidates signing up for the program,” says LeBeau.

Six candidates in Seattle elections used the democracy vouchers in 2017. This includes Teresa Mosqueda, who raised $300,000 with vouchers and ultimately won a seat on the Seattle City Council.

She argues that the program helped ensure a diverse slate of candidates — people like her, who aren’t wealthy and don’t have moneyed connections. Mosqueda worked full time during her campaign and lives in a one-bedroom apartment that she rents.

“I still pay student loans and I’m 37,” she says. “Knowing that we were going to be able to organize folks to turn in vouchers, that we were going to be able to see small-donor contributions really make the decision in the election ... that really was a green light saying go.”

Democracy vouchers were Mosqueda’s largest source of campaign funding, accounting for two-thirds of her $459,000 fundraising total. “If I was out door-belling in the evening for three hours or so, I could walk away with $500, $600, even $700 in vouchers on my own,” she says. “That was really incredible.”

We’ve also learned that democracy vouchers appear to have led to more small donations. In 2015, the last cycle before the program, an estimated 8,200 Seattle voters contributed to candidates. In 2017, that number tripled to 25,000. An analysis by the nonprofit Every Voice, which supports the program, found that that democracy voucher donors “better reflected Seattle’s population including young people, women, people of color, and less affluent residents.”

But we also know that the vast majority of Seattle residents chose not to participate in the democracy voucher program. Only 3.3 percent turned in their vouchers, meaning 96.7 percent did not.

“A fraction of those [vouchers] we sent out came back,” Barnett says. “So if you look at the program that way, some might say it was not successful. I think if you look at it from the other way, which is we more than tripled the number of people who contributed to campaigns, then it is successful.”

Seattle residents I interviewed were a bit sheepish in admitting they recycled or lost their vouchers. Most of them knew about the program. They remembered seeing the vouchers. It’s just that even with the free money, donating to local candidates wasn’t high on their priority list.

“I think I put it to the side and was like, I’ll do it later, and it got recycled,” Alice Tattersall, a 28-year-old nursing student, said.

“It just fell off of my radar, fell off my mind,” Seattle resident Chris Bradbury told me. He thought the vouchers were probably still hanging around his house.

One Seattleite asked if he could still use his voucher, and I had to tell him it had expired.

One major flaw with the first round of the democracy voucher program was that the mailings went out in January (required by the ballot initiative) but elections didn’t happen until November. That seemed to give Seattle residents plenty of times to lose track of a few pieces of paper.

Bradbury, for example, assumed his vouchers were still hanging around his house somewhere. “I can guess, like, three places, two drawers or a box. That’s a lot of potential money and influence that is just sitting in one of three places in my house, and everybody else’s house.”

Even Mosqueda, the City Council member, accidentally threw her vouchers in the recycling initially, assuming they were junk mail. She eventually realized what they were, retrieved them, and donated the money to her own campaign.

“If someone like me who was so engaged in the process almost recycled these vouchers, then we’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure that when they get mailed out, people know what they’re receiving,” she says.

The democracy voucher program currently generates a low return rate and is expensive to run. For every $100 in democracy vouchers spent in 2017, the program has about $100 in implementation and administrative costs. That money goes toward printing millions of vouchers, mailing them out, paying for the postage for voters to send them back in, and hiring staff to process the thousands that do come back to the city.

In 2017, the city spent just over $1 million running the democracy voucher program. Some of those costs are expected to go down (building out an office space, for example, which cost $225,00). But others will go up: Seattle wants to build a new web portal where voters could donate vouchers electronically rather than hanging on to their sheets of paper.

“That’s an awful cost-benefit proposition, considering how few citizens are going to be able to redeem vouchers,” says Robert Mahon, a former chair of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission who has been critical of the democracy voucher program (but did donate his own).

Seattle is now raising $3 million annually in property taxes for the democracy voucher program. The question Mahon has: Are the vouchers the best use of that money? Could the city better spend it on increasing affordable housing in the city, improving the schools, or myriad other priorities that could always benefit from additional funding?

“The question is, is it worth the expenditure?” Mahon says. “Could there have been an alternative way of encouraging participation? Let’s incentivize people to give $25 by matching or super-matching those contributions, which we can do without the administrative costs. Because in this system, the challenge is all the paper that is going out.”

The high costs of sending out free campaign donations

Barnett is now in the midst of preparing for the second cycle of democracy vouchers, when the city has elections in 2019. He’s working with independent evaluators to better understand why so many vouchers weren’t returned.

“Was it something we could have done to educate them more to get more people to use them?” he says. “Or was it just that they don’t view local governing as really relevant to their lives? Those are all possibilities.”

Barnett’s office is working hard on the first possibility, addressing possible design flaws in the program. Seattle plans to create a digital system, for example, where residents can contribute their democracy vouchers electronically rather than squirreling away four pieces of paper for months on end.

He thinks this could raise the rate of return but is skeptical about whether it will save the city much money. “The danger right now is that everybody views this going online as a panacea,” he says. “We’re still going to have to get people to opt in to the [electronic] program before we can not mail them a voucher.”

The second question Barnett raises is arguably the scarier and harder problem to tackle: What if voters simply don’t care about local politics — that even when they get free money to donate, they don’t see the point of putting it toward one candidate over another?

Voter turnout in Washington state hit an all-time low in 2017. Most Seattle voters didn’t participate in that election. And nationally, the Pew Research Center recently ranked the United States 31 out of 35 developed countries in terms of voter participation.

Seattle in particular has relatively homogeneous politics — enough of a liberal lean to get the democracy voucher program off the ground in the first place. Only 8 percent of Seattle residents supported Donald Trump in 2016, a smaller percentage than even San Francisco. Some express a view that most candidates are probably just fine.

Annamarie Oommen, a 26-year-old former campaign worker who did use her vouchers, describes voting in Seattle as “choosing between two very progressive candidates in any given race.”

The democracy vouchers made it easier to donate to campaigns, but not effortless. Free money didn’t do the work of helping voters figure out which candidates deserve that money — or convince voters that this money would affect the outcome of Seattle politics. And that extra effort, required on the part of voters, actually stands to be a big obstacle to making small money a dominant force in American politics.

Nevertheless, other cities are increasingly interested in the Seattle model. Council member Mosqueda has given multiple presentations about the program; when I interviewed her this spring, she was just about to head to Austin to present to its city council on the idea (the city ultimately decided against moving forward with the program).

“I think it is good that Seattle made the decision that it’s willing to pay for this program,” Barnett says of democracy vouchers. “But processing 72,000 vouchers, printing and mailing vouchers to everyone in your city ... it’s a daunting task.”