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Seattle's new political vouchers are an experiment. How will we know if they're working?

Giving everyone $100 for political contributions is brilliant — if people use the money.

Seattle mayor Ed Murray, with city council members, signs minimum wage increase
Seattle mayor Ed Murray, with city council members, signs minimum wage increase
David Ryder/Getty Images

Two successful campaign finance reform initiatives on the ballot early this month — in Maine and Seattle — were among the bright spots in a dreary off-off-year election. They made news mainly as strong indications that the public supports reform. Voters in these jurisdictions support reform even if it involves spending modest amounts of public money to ensure that candidates who don't have big-dollar backers and Super PACs can be heard.

Both initiatives eschew the obsolete approach to campaign finance that relies primarily on limits; these initiatives expand speech and political opportunity. Small-donor public financing systems ensure that candidates don't have to go to a few very wealthy individuals or Super PACs for the support they need to be heard. They can ask the same people for small contributions that they ask for votes. And these speech-expansive programs are constitutionally sound, even under the constrained view of the current Supreme Court majority.

But the Seattle experiment, which would provide every voter with four $25 vouchers to contribute to a campaign, is something new. So far, the broad family of small-donor-empowerment initiatives has fallen into three categories:

  • "Clean elections" systems, such as Maine's, that give participating candidates (that is, those who agree to limits on total spending and contributions) a fixed sum of money sufficient to run and be heard. In order to qualify, candidates must collect a certain number of very small contributions. The Maine initiative essentially strengthened and added funding to the state's nearly two-decades-old public financing system.
  • Matching systems, such as New York City's, which boost small contributions with public money. New York City, the best example, provides a 6-to-1 match on contributions of $175 or less. It's made elections competitive, vastly increased the number of donors, and has provided enough funds that even in a city awash in money, almost all candidates participate, and they show little inclination to go outside the system by spending through Super PACs.
  • Tax credits. A few states offer tax credits for small contributions, and the federal government did so until 1987. In Minnesota, the tax credit is like an instant refund. Send in a receipt for up to $50 in political contributions and get a check back for the same amount. (Sadly, the system has not been steadily funded.)

With Seattle's vote, reformers add a new option to the family of small-donor initiatives. Unlike matching systems or tax credits, which require citizens to have some money to spare, at least while waiting for the refund, vouchers are truly universal, and every voter can be a donor. The idea of vouchers is not new, but it's one that has thrived solely in the hothouse of academia until last week. The best-known voucher advocate has been Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, with his colleague Ian Ayres; up the road at Harvard, the no-longer-presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig picked up the idea recently. I've made the case for vouchers, along with another law professor, Zephyr Teachout.

Vouchers are long overdue to get out of the faculty lounge and get a test in the real world. Will they live up to Ackerman and Ayres's promise that a nationwide voucher system "would provoke tens of millions of dinner-table conversations: Who should get our democracy dollars? Who is really concerned about America and its future?" Will candidates and voters embrace the system? Will vouchers replace most of the private money and Super PAC money that floods the system? And what are the potential pitfalls of the idea?

(For a more thorough analysis of all four options, see this policy paper from earlier in the year.)

Here's what to look for in the years ahead as the voucher system takes hold. Keep in mind that we won't really know how the system is working in just the first election cycle in which vouchers are available — it could take several years before the culture and assumptions of Seattle politics catches up with the opportunities created by the law.

First, what we don't need to be concerned about: The most often-heard concerns about vouchers are fraud and a black market. Neither is a serious risk — it's not difficult to create secure, traceable physical or electronic coupons; most of us use them every day. As for the black market, one can speculate that voters who don't have any idea what to do with these mysterious $25 coupons might be willing to sell them for $10 to an unscrupulous political operative. But much like large-scale voter fraud, such an operation is hard to pull off without involving a lot of people and making it almost inevitable that you'll get caught. Penalties in the system are high.

The real questions:

Will candidates participate? Public financing is always voluntary; in order to accept vouchers, candidates will have to agree to strict spending and contribution limits. If they worry that they won't have enough to compete, they won't participate and won't be eligible for vouchers. In New York City, candidate participation is well above 95 percent; the only candidates who don't participate are self-financed, and they often lose. Participation in clean elections systems is usually somewhat lower but more than enough to keep the system going. I would expect participation in Seattle's voucher system to be very high, in part because the city already has fairly low contribution limits.

Will different people be able to compete and win? There's evidence that women, nonwhite candidates, and people from less affluent backgrounds are more likely to run and win in systems where public financing lowers the barriers to entry, such as Arizona's. Will vouchers have the same effect? Seattle may not provide the best test, because the starting point is impressively diverse: Only three of the nine city council members elected on November 3 are white men.

Will citizens participate? How many will use their vouchers? The vast majority of people have never made a political contribution of any kind, so vouchers are trying to nudge us toward an unfamiliar habit. To estimate the costs of the program, advocates of the initiative assumed that about 10 percent of the vouchers in circulation would be put to use. In some cases, vouchers won't be usable because the candidates have already reached their spending limit.

The Ackerman/Ayres civic vision of citizens sitting around the kitchen table deciding how to best to invest their vouchers is a little naive. The key intermediary in encouraging people to make small contributions will be candidates. If candidates participate, and ask people for their vouchers as well as their votes, that will encourage participation. Even with free money, most people don't give until they are asked to give. If most candidates participate, citizens will likely follow.

Will disclosure discourage participation? Vouchers are like votes — universal and equal — but with one big exception: The ballot is secret. In Seattle, all contributions, including vouchers, will be disclosed. There's a sound case for that. It's public money, and the public should know where it's going. Also, disclosure will allow journalists and researchers to spot signs of fraud and better understand how the system is being used.

However, experimental research by political scientist Ray La Raja suggests that small donors may be discouraged from giving by the knowledge that their political preferences will be made public. On the other hand, research comparing states before and after they changed disclosure requirements shows little deterrent effect on small donors when disclosure requirements expand. But we know that employers are increasingly involved in their employees' political decisions; people have good reason to worry about whether their choices will have consequences. There is a good case to consider raising the threshold for disclosure (currently $200 at the federal level, and all over the map in the states), as part of a deal that would require disclosure for all large campaign expenditures. Seattle's initiative moves in the other direction, requiring more disclosure at the very low end.

When will citizens use their vouchers? Money has the heaviest influence in politics at the beginning of an election cycle, determining whether a candidate can run. It's a barrier to entry. Will candidates just starting out be able to reach enough voters and win enough vouchers early on to get to that critical level where they can compete and be heard? Or will they be stuck in a zone where they don't have enough money to campaign for votes, and therefore also don't have enough money to campaign for vouchers? Alternatively, the best-known, best-organized candidates (e.g., incumbents) might scoop up a lot of the vouchers early, making it hard for newer candidates to obtain them.

Matching systems such as New York City's have a bit of an advantage here. As a candidate, if you attract $50 in vouchers from 100 Seattle residents, you have $5,000. If you pick up $50 contributions from 100 New Yorkers, you'll have $35,000, a good start on a city council race. But this is entirely speculative.

Will vouchers exacerbate partisanship? Some political scientists, including La Raja, argue that small donor programs might make partisanship worse, because small donors tend to be ideologues, while big and corporate donors, often looking for favors, support "moderates." If this is true, vouchers might be part of the solution, giving everyone, including the millions of softly ideological voters, an easy way to contribute and an incentive for candidates to reach out to those centrists. But as with diversity, Seattle is unlikely to offer a good test of partisanship in the familiar sense — debate in the city seems to fall on more or less the Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders axis, with the variation that Seattle's elected socialist, council member Kshama Sawant, seems a bit more ideologically committed than Sanders.

The Seattle voucher experiment is important and long overdue. But let's be honest — it's important because it's an experiment, not because we know with any certainty how it will work. If over the next few years, we see shortcomings — candidate participation is low, voters don't use their vouchers, or candidates have a hard time getting started — it won't mean that the core idea is fatally flawed, but more likely that implementation needs to be refined. The numbers can be shifted, or the program can be combined with one of the other small-donor tools, such as matching funds for the first few thousand dollars.

The most successful small-donor systems, notably New York City's, have worked not because they started with a perfect idea, but because their government or the relevant independent agency has been committed to continually learning from and refining the process. Seattle's vouchers will work if Seattle is committed to doing the same thing — listening, analyzing, and revising the system as it goes.