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.
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.