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Kirsten Gillibrand’s plan to get more small donors into politics: give every voter $600

Voters would get vouchers they could use to donate to the presidential, House, and Senate candidates of their choice.

Democratic Presidential Candidate New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand Campaigns In Des Moines, Iowa
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks to guests during a campaign event with Drake University Democrats at Papa Keno’s restaurant on April 17, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. 
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has a radical plan to get more small-dollar donations into politics: She wants to give every voter $200 they can donate to the presidential candidate of their choice.

Gillibrand’s plan is part of a larger movement among Democrats, who are increasingly seeking to curb the influence of big money in politics. Her “Clean Elections” proposal, which she unveiled via a Medium post on Wednesday, would do so in a straightforward way: It aims to increase the number of small donations in federal elections, and neutralize the outsized influence that large donors currently have.

Under Gillibrand’s proposal, every voter who opts in would receive $200 to donate for each presidential election, split across the primary and the final race. Voters would also receive the same amount of money for both federal Senate and House races, meaning they could ultimately get a total of $600 per person, depending on the cycle.

This outlay would be paid for by eliminating a tax subsidy that CEOs receive, a move that the campaign estimates would result in roughly $60 billion in revenue over the course of a decade. (It’s a figure that’s consistent with an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, which found that this subsidy effectively cost the US government $7 billion in 2010.)

As the thinking behind the plan goes, if every voter had vouchers provided by the government, they’d be more likely to get involved in elections. By virtue of scale, their collective donations would counteract the massive contributions from wealthy donors, while also forcing candidates to reach out to a wider base of voters.

The money each voter would receive, dubbed “Democracy Dollars,” would also only go to candidates who commit not to accept donations above the $200 mark, a major reduction from the $2,800 legal limit that candidates currently face.

While the idea of writing voters a blank check for candidate donations may seem like a moonshot, it’s actually a program that’s already been implemented (to limited success) in Seattle, and one that’s getting more consideration from other cities and states across the country. At its core, the plan seeks to give more voters a voice in federal elections, while reducing candidates’ reliance on massive donations from a limited pool of rich donors.

“For too long, small groups of wealthy donors have had outsized influence over our government. These groups also tend to be disproportionately white and male,” Gillibrand writes in her Medium post. “My plan would flip the equation — empowering more women and people of color to have a say in our government and set our course for a more equal and just future.”

Whether it actually would do so is an open question.

Seattle, for example, holds both good and bad news for Gillibrand. While the vouchers did increase and diversify the donor pool in one of the city’s elections, they also saw very low adoption rates across the broader electorate.

What’s more, as Splinter’s Libby Watson notes, Gillibrand’s plan is, by design, altering a system that candidates may be averse to changing. Since candidates would have to opt out of high-dollar donations to be eligible for Democracy Dollars, those who actually participated in the program might be at a disadvantage.

Gillibrand’s proposal is one of a slate of innovative campaign finance reforms Democrats have put forth in recent years. While the unfettered spending of super PACs may be backed by the legal system for now, these efforts strive to level the playing field in other ways.

Democracy Dollars could enable more people to participate in elections — but it’s got some large barriers to overcome

In theory, “Democracy Dollars” — similarly named to the “Democracy Vouchers” that were launched in Seattle ahead of its 2017 election — could have the potential to bring many new donors into the political system and amplify their impact.

Inspired by a 2011 New York Times op-ed by Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, a think tank called Sightline helped Seattle develop its Democracy Vouchers program, which gave hundreds of thousands of voters $100 to spend on candidates in its 2017 City Council race.

As Vox’s Sarah Kliff writes, the vouchers were, in some ways, effective:

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.

After that election, the city decided to continue implementing the program, including making the vouchers accessible online.

Despite those gains, the program was far from a runaway success.

Adoption was low: While the city sent roughly half a million vouchers in its first go-around, just 3.3 percent of recipients went on to use them, Kliff writes.

That was partly because many people didn’t know what the program was or weren’t motivated to use their vouchers, making voter education about a program like this integral to its success, says Campaign Legal Center counsel Aaron McKean.

“One big drawback of voucher programs is that it’s new,” he told Vox. “People are going to have to learn how to use them. That really falls on the agency and the government body that’s starting the program in terms of the voter education they need.”

Another barrier the Seattle program ran up against was cost. “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,” Kliff writes.

On the federal level, those costs would probably be far higher, and the tradeoff might not be worth it if such a small percentage of the population capitalized on the program. Gillibrand’s campaign thinks this program would still make a significant difference, however, even if the initial adoption rate is low.

“With only 0.5 percent of the population currently donating $200-plus, even a small increase nationwide would have a dramatic effect on our democracy,” an aide tells Vox.

Money in politics is a major flashpoint this cycle

Championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during his presidential election in 2016, the emphasis on grassroots funding has only grown among Democrats, as scrutiny of donations from corporations and lobbyists has increased. This cycle, money in politics looms larger than ever.

Gillibrand, herself, has gotten heat for her approach to donors in the past. Known for being an incredibly effective fundraiser, she’s been criticized for her ties with Wall Street, a key constituency in her home state of New York. This cycle, she, like many of her competitors, has committed to rejecting donations from corporate PACs. In a first quarter fundraising report, her campaign noted that 83 percent of her donations were less than $50.

Gillibrand’s proposal, meanwhile, is one of a slew of Democratic efforts to redistribute donor power back to average voters. Congressional Democrats have also laid out a policy boosting public financing in elections via a matching program, as part of a core tenet of their signature anti-corruption legislation, HR 1.

If the bill were to become law, the federal government would match small-dollar donations that presidential and congressional candidates raise, six times over: For every dollar a candidate brings in, they would get six dollars in return from the federal government. A similar program has already seen proven success in New York City, where it was established in the late 1980s. In 2013, for example, 61 percent of City Council candidates’ campaign funding came from small-dollar donations or matching funds.

Both Gillibrand’s Clean Elections plan and the matching option would help dilute the impact that special interest groups and wealthy donors have on elections, Campaign Legal Center’s McKean says.

To benefit from public financing programs — including Democracy Dollars, however — candidates would have to put caps on the types of donations they can receive or the spending they engage in. To do so, they are shunting other larger donations to the side, which could mean they would be less competitive in a close race. Figuring out whether the positive optics and crowd-based power of Democracy Dollars would be enough to push candidates to reject high-dollar donations would ultimately be crucial to the program’s success.

A current matching program the federal government offers presidential candidates has seen low adoption rates in recent elections because these limitations proved too restrictive.

“Candidates who choose to opt in will be giving themselves a large advantage, both in terms of real dollars and in terms of their campaign’s message,” the campaign aide notes, regarding the benefits of Democracy Dollars. In Seattle, the majority of candidates have made this calculus and determined that it’s worth it, according to a Sightline post. Forty-four of 57 candidates participating in city elections this year have committed to capping the kinds of donations they can raise in order to be eligible for Democracy Vouchers.

The Citizens United Supreme Court decision also enables the influence of wealthy donors to persist. While public financing plans can address direct donations by individuals, they don’t tackle the sizable independent spending by corporations or super PACs in favor of different candidates.

Despite these challenges, Gillibrand’s plan is one that’s already gained traction in a local setting. If implemented effectively, it has serious potential in a federal one.