What If Everyone Got $100 To Donate to the Candidate of Their Choice?

Democracy vouchers, explained,

In These Times EditorsJanuary 3, 2019

(Terry La Ban)

de•moc•ra•cy vouch•ers

noun

1. When the gov­ern­ment gives vot­ers mon­ey that can be donat­ed to a polit­i­cal candidate

Democ­ra­cy vouch­ers were like win­ning the lot­tery for a first-time, non-wealthy, non­tra­di­tion­al can­di­date like me.” —Tere­sa Mosque­da, elect­ed in 2017 as the youngest mem­ber of, and only renter on, the Seat­tle City Coun­cil.

Do we real­ly need more mon­ey in politics?

God, no — but we might need dif­fer­ent mon­ey in pol­i­tics. Cur­rent­ly, donors are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly old, white, male and wealthy. Can­di­dates, then, are behold­en to the wrong inter­ests. Democ­ra­cy vouch­ers would encour­age and enable the poor, those who typ­i­cal­ly couldn’t afford to donate, to par­tic­i­pate. Then can­di­dates might actu­al­ly start lis­ten­ing to them.

Are vouch­ers in action anywhere?

In 2015, Seat­tle vot­ers approved a prop­er­ty tax increase to finance Democ­ra­cy Dol­lars,” becom­ing the first city to insti­tute the pro­gram. Every reg­is­tered vot­er gets four $25 vouch­ers that they can donate to the munic­i­pal can­di­dates of their choice. (The fund­ing, how­ev­er, is lim­it­ed, so poten­tial donors must act fast.)

Is this just a weird Seat­tle thing?

For now, yes. But Albu­querque, N.M., will like­ly see democ­ra­cy vouch­ers on the bal­lot in 2019, and the pol­i­cy is gain­ing momen­tum from Austin, Texas, to New Hamp­shire. Rep. Ro Khan­na (D‑Calif.) intro­duced a Democ­ra­cy Dol­lars Act in Con­gress in 2018, propos­ing that each reg­is­tered vot­er receive a vouch­er for fed­er­al elec­tions: $25 for the pres­i­dent, $15 for the Sen­ate and $10 for the House. Oth­er vari­a­tions on the pub­lic financ­ing of elec­tions exist already. New York City, for instance, match­es small-dol­lar dona­tions at a rate of 6 to 1; in Maine, can­di­dates who meet a fundrais­ing thresh­old can get state fund­ing in lieu of accept­ing fur­ther pri­vate donations.

Do vouch­ers actu­al­ly do what they claim to do?

Ear­ly evi­dence sug­gests yes. While big donors haven’t stopped giv­ing in Seat­tle, small donor num­bers shot up in 2017, as 18,000 res­i­dents used at least one vouch­er ver­sus only 8,200 peo­ple who donat­ed at all in 2013. And evi­dence shows vouch­er users skew younger and low­er­in­come than the typ­i­cal donor.

This shift sub­verts the con­ven­tion­al polit­i­cal cal­cu­lus. Mul­ti­ple can­di­dates eschewed large dona­tions entire­ly, rely­ing large­ly on vouch­er donors; this changes who you try to rub elbows with on the cam­paign trail. City Coun­cil can­di­date Jon Grant, for instance, run­ning on an afford­able hous­ing plat­form, gained sup­port by enrolling home­less peo­ple in the vouch­er pro­gram. (He sur­vived the pri­ma­ry but lost the general.)

As more pro­gres­sives across the coun­try reject cor­po­rate mon­ey, democ­ra­cy vouch­ers could help fuel a base of small-mon­ey donors, allow­ing these can­di­dates to com­pete with the cor­po­rate-backed Right.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a month­ly series offer­ing brief intro­duc­tions to pro­gres­sive the­o­ries, poli­cies, tools and strate­gies that can help us envi­sion a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. For recent In These Times cov­er­age of cam­paign finance, see, The Case For Giv­ing Every Amer­i­can $25Democ­ra­cy Vouch­ers” For Every Election​, Want Proof that Cor­po­rate Mon­ey Influ­ences Politi­cians? This New Study Has It.” and Maine Leads the Nation in Cam­paign Finance Reform.”

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