Democracy Vouchers

The outrage that followed the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United focused national attention on a problem that has long preceded that unfortunate ruling: the influence of money on democratic deliberation.

Even if we ignore the armies of lobbyists and the corrupting influence of “big money” campaign donations in Washington and our state capitals, anyone who is at all familiar with the way in which policy is made understands that our elected representatives respond to the constituents from whom they hear, and those constituents are highly unlikely to be poor people.

People who are struggling to make ends meet rarely have time or energy to visit legislative bodies, testify in hearings or participate in grass-roots lobbying efforts. And it goes without saying that they are not numbered among the donors to legislative campaigns. As a result, even the most conscientious lawmakers (and they do exist) simply do not hear the voices and perspectives of working class Americans.

Seattle has recently embarked upon an effort to change that dynamic, at least to a degree.

If money amplifies the voices of wealthy Americans in politics, Seattle is trying something that aims to give low-income and middle-class voters a signal boost.

The city’s new “Democracy Voucher” program, the first of its kind in the US, provides every eligible Seattle resident with $100 in taxpayer-funded vouchers to donate to the candidates of their choice. The goal is to incentivize candidates to take heed of a broad range of residents – homeless people, minimum-wage workers, seniors on fixed incomes – as well as the big-dollar donors who often dictate the political conversation.

This August’s primary is the trial run for the program. But before Seattle can crow about having re-enfranchised long-overlooked voters, it must contend with conservative opposition.

A Libertarian law firm has sued the city to stop the program, alleging that democracy vouchers violate the first amendment rights of homeowners because their taxes are funding vouchers that will be contributed to candidates they oppose. That case is pending, but constitutional lawyers consider its prospects dubious.

The program opponents appear to be in the minority; the voucher program and its funding mechanism (a 10-year, $30m property tax levy) were approved by voters in a ballot measure in November 2015. All registered voters are sent the vouchers automatically. Residents who are not registered or who lack a permanent address – such as homeless people – can apply by mail or in person.

Seattle’s proposal joins other efforts that have emerged in the wake of the Obama and Sanders campaigns, both of which demonstrated that significant funds could be raised through appeals to small donors–no one of whom, presumably, would have the same ability to influence policy as individuals contributing large sums.

Last fall, South Dakota voters approved a program similar to Seattle’s, joining more than a dozen other states with some form of public financing, usually a matching fund for small campaign donations. Cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Berkeley, California, also followed the public-financing trend last year.

Democracy Vouchers are unlikely to make much of a dent in current levels of inequality of political influence, but the effort is encouraging. It represents an acknowledgment of the disparity in political influence between the rich and the rest, and to the extent it encourages candidates to focus  fundraising strategies on vouchers/small donors, it should add a (currently absent) perspective to the political conversation.


  1. “Democracy Vouchers”
    “That case is pending, but constitutional lawyers consider its prospects dubious.”

    This sounds beyond dubious to me; I immediately thought of George W’s giveaway of a $250 “tax refund” to all Americans…including those who didn’t pay taxes. I received my information and forms in the mail; due to my taxable income being under $300 monthly, I hadn’t filed taxes since becoming disabled in 1994. I tore up the forms, hand wrote a note on the enclosed letter stating I wasn’t a tax payer and didn’t qualify for an additional tax refund. Noting the return envelope stated it was illegal to use it for anything but government business, I used my own envelope and postage “to be safe”. I viewed W’s action at that time, and continue viewing it today, as vote buying as well as information gathering similar to Trump’s current Voter Commission.

    The $250 deposit from President Obama directly into my bank account, as a Social Security recipient, I considered then and continue to consider it a financial assistance due to no COLA. There was a difference.

    The “Democracy Vouchers” fits more into W’s questionable “tax refund” to all, including non tax paying citizens than buying an initiative to vote. If their tax base has enough to give $100 vouchers using tax dollars, to the needy, why not give them $100 for their actual needs? As for those “big-dollar donors”; they don’t need incentive, many of them support and are already donating to candidates who support Citizens United.

    “The goal is to incentivize candidates to take heed of a broad range of residents – homeless people, minimum-wage workers, seniors on fixed incomes – as well as the big-dollar donors who often dictate the political conversation.”

  2. One wonders what led to this plan by the Seattle government. Were there widespread calls for the use of tax money that could be funneled back into the political coffers of those who brought this plan about? Were there marches? A large contingent of locals sitting in at city hall?

    This seems similar to the Indiana voucher system.

  3. Public financing is a nice idea, but we still have to deal with the fact that so much more comes in from the Sheldon Adelsons and Charles Kochs that Democracy Vouchers pale in comparison. Citizens United is an abomination and needs to be overturned.

  4. I’m not sure it matters so much about having to “buy” voters’ attention as it does to find ways to motivate the voters in the first place. This must be done in schools and as part of the civic duty of parents.

    Instead of putting the kids in front of mindless TV shows and even more mindless iPhone apps., we’d be better off showing everyone what representative government really is. I realize it’s a cart-horse thing, but registering kids to vote when they get their drivers license is a start. Oh, and they will have to pass a civics test before they get either.

    Tough love has its benefits.

  5. I believe IM-22, South Dakota’s initiated measure was repealed by wingnuts using “emergency ” rules so it could not be re-referred to them for consideration. The idjit governor said the voters were hoodwinked into supporting the measure-it passed with 52% of the public vote.

    To no one’s surprise at all, this isn’t the first time wingnuts decided, on their own, that the public did not understand what they were voting for. Wingnuts have a death grip on South Dakota government and veto proof super majorities in both houses of congress.

  6. Vernon’s comment reminded me that a state is trying to pass a law to make smoking cigarettes illegal until you’re 21. I think I’d rather have a law that you are required to vote or get hit with a fine.

    I think it’s weird that in this country, you can drive in most states when you’re 16 but can’t drink until you’re 21. So that means you can register for military service and voting at 18, but won’t be able to smoke cigarettes until you’re 21? You can be emancipated from your parents but can be convicted as a murderer as young as 12? Too many mixed signals about the age of consent, the age of maturity, the age of convictions and every state calls it differently. We really need to rethink these “states rights” laws and become one nation.

    I don’t think this 100 bonus for politicians is a good thing. I think it’s ridiculous the amount of money it takes to be a politician in this country. Yes, End Citizen’s United! We need to make it easier for more voices to become our representatives. Just like every other thing in this country, money talks and b.s. walks. What a weird country we live in.

  7. No question in my opinion that it’s admirable that Seattle addressed the problem. Is that the most effective way? That remains to be seen.

    There are many other potentially more effective approaches that address things more directly like regulating corporations out of donating and donation limits and ammending The Constitution to separate money from words under Freedom of Speech but they would require effective government to create effective government so are not very likely.

  8. I am not sure this is a good way to financially support candidates. Bernie’s campaign of asking for $2,3,5 worked and seems like a better approach.

  9. if you wonder why we need help,after all the majority rule at the capital level in most states wont even consider such a plan to get a wage that we can survive on,much less live with…south dakota showed a ballot and the voter won…but,it shows the far right still rules above and beyond the masses. we see a continued take over by the very reps we vote for,and see washington sell out democracy,and ethics as a past history. we have many who dont vote,or cant. suppression is a far more a problem,and needs the best attention. we the voter need to educate,and get a plan,get the ids, and get the masses out there. we obviously only have a vote left. Suppression can be overcome by playing the game, the same one the right squels about. fighting a endless game of voter id. will only comprimise our goals. sure we dont need more rules,but we dont need wall street makng slaves out of us either.. 15.00 bucks an hour still falls short on big city wages, as maybe its o.k. for rural America. but its a start,and it can get many to get aquainted with voting and getting involved.. were 30 some years behind in wage growth,and trumps mob will only keep us closer to the paverty wages for 10 more years,even if he disappears in the next vote…

  10. Citizens United is the second worst decision the Supreme Court has ever made, second only to the Dred Scott decision, so while we are working on such things as the Seattle plan to get ordinary Americans (at least collectively) back into the political process, let’s continue to agitate for limiting the effect of Citizens United while trying to get it undone. The Seattle plan is a band aid but better band aids than nothing to bring the lopsided effects of Big Money to heel in a Congress intent on one thing – reelection.

  11. Grant political parties (willing to use no other money to compete for public office) public funding in proportion to their membership and have these parties fund their candidates’ campaigns.

  12. Amend the personal income tax code and Form 1040 to provide for a fixed deduction off the net tax when the citizen certifies by signing the tax return that he/she voted. ( may not be less than zero) Add more specifics to the certification, if necessary, for example, which election, even which office or which candidate.
    Could this method be used to mitigate the influence of Citizens United?
    Think about it and add your ideas to this.

  13. And this late afternoon I read about a Wisconsin company giving employees the choice of being ‘chipped’ to buy things within the plant like lunch – a program that was piloted as I recall late last year in Sweden with a company there – using software and hardware developed in Israel… and now this – this abomination of the political process… no this is not right. This is not democracy! This is a travesty.

    If it is reprehensible to have big money from big institutions leveraging favored legislation from our lawmakers, it must be reasonable, even brilliant, to subsidize forty to sixty million additional leverage nuts. If ten thousand big money leverage nuts are bad for America, then forty million leverage nuts must be better. And all the money ends up in politician’s war chests. Thinking like this enables travesties like Citizens United.
    What America needs is a national ballot initiative process, similar to California.

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