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Washington and South Dakota could become the first states to enact campaign finance vouchers

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 12:  Participants hold up dollar bills during the 'Walk a Mile in Our Shoes' for Hurricane Sandy victims on January 12, 2013 in the Rockaway neighborhood, of the Queens borough of New York City. The event was organized to bring attention to the faltering recovery in the area that was badly affected by Hurricane Sandy, and to urge Congress to pass an aid bill scheduled for January 15. (Photo by Lee Celano/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 12: Participants hold up dollar bills during the 'Walk a Mile in Our Shoes' for Hurricane Sandy victims on January 12, 2013 in the Rockaway neighborhood, of the Queens borough of New York City. The event was organized to bring attention to the faltering recovery in the area that was badly affected by Hurricane Sandy, and to urge Congress to pass an aid bill scheduled for January 15. (Photo by Lee Celano/Getty Images)
Lee Celano/Getty Images

At some point early on in this election cycle, it appeared that 2016 might finally be the year campaign finance reform had its breakout moment. Bernie Sanders was talking about it. Donald Trump was talking about it. Four in five Americans were concerned about the role of money in campaigns. Hillary Clinton made "Revitalizing Our Democracy" one of her initial "Four Fights."

But that was before Trump and Clinton settled into a general election campaign where other issues came to dominate. Now, in the past few months, we've heard nary a peep about campaign finance reform, other than Clinton's occasional promise to appoint Supreme Court judges who will overturn Citizens United.

But 2016 might still be a noteworthy year for campaign finance reform. That's because two states — South Dakota and Washington — are voting on ballot initiatives that could make either or both of the states the first in the nation to implement a new and promising approach to campaign finance reform: vouchers.

The voucher idea is pretty straightforward. Every registered voter gets a set of coupons (branded as "democracy credits") to give to political candidates of their choosing (worth a total of $150 per person in Washington and $100 per person in South Dakota).

In both states, candidates can only accept the coupons if they agree to limits on the private donations they accept. In South Dakota, that's $250 for legislative candidates and $500 for statewide candidates, and those contributions can only come from state residents. In Washington, the limits on contributions from individuals would be $500 for legislative candidates, and $1,000 for statewide candidates.

Washington's program would be paid for by eliminating a sales tax exemption for Oregon residents spending money in the state; South Dakota's would be financed by the state's general fund, about one-tenth of 1 percent of the state budget.

The case for vouchers is that they level the playing field. Our current campaign finance system gives a very small number of very wealthy donors an outsize role in determining who runs for office. These wealthy donors frequently have views at odds with those of most voters.

Under the voucher system, candidates would have new freedoms to bypass these wealthy donors, going directly to the voters, who would be newly empowered with these democracy credits.

As a mode of campaign finance reform, a system of vouchers has a few potential advantages over other approaches. As compared with small-donor matching systems, it encourages candidates to target their appeals more broadly. A reasonable risk with a small-donor matching system is that candidates will target voters who are already most likely to give, which means voters who are wealthier and more ideological, on average. By contrast, in a voucher system, all registered voters will be equally valuable, since they all have the same resources.

A corollary is that a voucher system invests all registered voters with a stake, since they now have money to allocate. A voucher system is sort of like getting a gift card: When you have use-it-or-lose-it money, you're more likely to think about how to spend it.

As compared with full public funding, in which money goes directly to candidates, vouchers also give voters a larger role, though the evidence suggests that so-called "clean election" campaign finance systems do lead to candidates spending more time appealing directly to voters.

If either of these initiatives passes, it would become the first state-level campaign-voucher program, which would be a significant development. Seattle passed the first citywide voucher program last November.

If I were voting in either South Dakota or Washington, I'd support these initiatives. It's clear that the status quo, in which a very small number of wealthy donors effectively decide on the candidates and their issue priorities, is unacceptable. We need to find an alternative.

At the same time, it's important to be honest. Vouchers are still very much an experiment, and one of several approaches to campaign finance reform.

A lot depends on how candidates and parties adapt to them, and whether citizens actually bother to use them, as my colleague Mark Schmitt noted last year in response to Seattle's new voucher program:

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.

And as Michael Malbin noted in a helpful overview of "Citizen Funding for Elections," "a program's fine-grained details can make a huge difference in outcomes. For supporters of citizen funding or tax incentives, this means that passing a program that carries a good-sounding label will not be enough to accomplish their goals." Well-designed programs can and do increase candidate diversity, and more closely connect voters and candidates. But they require work.

Both of these initiatives face uphill struggles

Both reforms are part of larger ethics-and-corruption initiatives in these two states, initiatives that also include tougher ethics rules, increased transparency measures, and more restrictions of lobbyists. In South Dakota, the initiative is Measure 22. In Washington state, it's Initiative 1464.

Both face uphill battles, as initiatives generally do.

South Dakota is tough because it is a conservative state, and the Republican Party in South Dakota is opposed (though one of the co-chairs of the initiative is a former Republican state senator). The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity is also pushing hard against the South Dakota initiative, making the classic case against campaign finance reform: that is stifles free speech, that it is just a subsidy for politicians.

In Washington, advocates are concerned that the ballot language is too vague. In an August survey, 43 percent of state voters were undecided and 23 percent were opposed, with the remaining 34 percent supporting the measure. These are not great numbers.

Supporters of these initiatives took the more comprehensive approach because they saw it as a way to frame the debate around a broader message of "corruption" — a message that could go beyond the traditional lefty good-government campaign finance reform constituency.

However, looking at Washington's Initiative 1464 ballot language ("This measure would create a campaign-finance system; allow residents to direct state funds to candidates; repeal the non-resident sales-tax exemption; restrict lobbying employment by certain former public employees; and add enforcement requirements"), it's easy to wonder whether a narrower approach — just focused on vouchers — would have made for clearer language and messaging.

It would also be valuable to see what happens if you frame a campaign finance reform effort around empowerment and opportunity and/or equality, since there's growing evidence that all this talk about corruption and a broken system is demobilizing. As political scientists Adam Seth Levine and Robyn L. Stiles note in a recent paper, "Perceptions of unequal influence reduce electoral engagement." By contrast, messages of empowerment mobilize participation.

Still, if either of these initiatives passes, it would mark a major step forward in the efforts to reform the campaign finance system. And even if the initiatives only lose by a narrow margin, that would be an encouraging sign too — that there is enough frustration with the state of our democracy that it's time to try something new and different.

Campaign finance is on the ballot in other places too

The state-level campaign finance reform with the strongest chance of success in 2016 is probably in Missouri. In the Show-Me State, 64 percent of voters say they support Amendment 2, which would reinstate limits on campaign contributions, reversing a 2008 law that abolished those limits.

The most significant city-level initiative that is likely to pass will probably come out of San Francisco, where Proposition T would bar lobbyists from making any contributions or doing any bundling. Across the bay in Berkeley, Measure X1 would bring small-donor matching to citywide elections.

And in Multnomah County, Oregon (home to Portland), voters will weigh in on a comprehensive "Honest Elections" package. In Howard County, Maryland, voters will weigh in on a small-donor public matching system.

Finally, California has a pointless advisory question on the ballot, Proposition 49, encouraging the California legislature to approve a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. The effort to overturn Citizens United by constitutional amendment has always been futile. Now, on the verge of a Democrat getting to appoint a fifth liberal justice to the Supreme Court, it seems especially useless.

In contrast to pushes for constitutional amendments, resources are much better spent in places like Washington and South Dakota, where reform is actually possible.

Whether or not these initiatives pass, state-level and city-level experimentation remains the best way forward on campaign finance reform. The more states experiment, the more we will know about what works. And the more states have citizen-funded elections, the more politicians will be comfortable with these systems, and the stronger the case will be to change the law nationwide.