Seattle’s novel “democracy voucher” program for funding local elections — the only such program in the nation — is attracting attention in some faraway places.
“We have a really deep interest in it,” said Brian J. McCabe, an associate professor in sociology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and co-author of a new study on the program. “It could revolutionize local elections.”
The study found that the democracy voucher program does appear to be living up to its name — that is, it’s helping to democratize political giving in Seattle by diversifying the donor pool to better reflect the city’s population.
Roughly 7.6% of the voting-age population — about 48,000 city residents — used the vouchers in 2021, according to the study. That’s up around 10,000 from the number who used vouchers in 2019, and more than double the number in the program’s debut year, 2017.
“There are just more and more donors every year,” McCabe said, “and one of the program’s success stories is that more people are participating in local elections.”
The study also found the rate of participation in the voucher program rose most significantly among Black, Hispanic and young voters, groups that have historically been underrepresented in the campaign finance system.
The voucher program, which was approved by voters in 2015 through Initiative 122, authorized a 10-year, $30 million property tax levy to pay for the vouchers. Eligible Seattle residents receive four $25 vouchers in the mail, which they can donate to any candidate who agrees to participate in the program. Voucher donations, like all donations, are public record.
The analysis of the voucher program data found participation has increased among four major racial groups. The biggest jump was among Black residents. In 2021, 7.5% of Seattle’s Black residents used the vouchers, up from 3.1% in 2017. The Hispanic participation rate also nearly doubled.
White residents still had the highest rate of participation in the voucher program, at 8.5%, but the gap between white, Black and Hispanic participation narrowed. Asian residents had the lowest rate, at 4.3%.
Participation also rose among all age groups, but the biggest increase was among young people. More than 6% of Seattle residents aged 18-29 used vouchers to contribute to a candidate in 2021, up from 2.4% in 2017. And among the 30-44 age group, participation doubled to 7.7%.
Even so, the highest participation rates remain among older voters, with more than 10% of those 60 and older using vouchers last year — but here too, the gap in participation between oldest and youngest groups narrowed.
McCabe says the increased participation among young voters, a group that typically shows less interest in local politics, is a testament to the program’s success, and one that could have long-lasting impact.
“It kind of builds a civic habit,” he said.
Participation rates also increased among all household income groups since 2017, and there was a big jump among the lowest-earning group — the rate among those making less than $30,000 jumped from 4% to 7.7%. Even so, the gap in participation between the lowest and highest income groups hasn’t narrowed since 2017. The highest participation rate was among those making more than $100,000, at 9%.
The data shows the gap between women and men hasn’t narrowed either. Women have a consistently higher rate of participation in the program — in 2021, around 9% of women used vouchers compared with 7.5% of men.
The 2021 elections marked the first time vouchers have been used in a Seattle mayoral race, which may explain some of the increased participation. The citywide races also included two at-large City Council seats and the city attorney position. All candidates in the general election participated in the voucher program.
McCabe says that while Seattle’s voucher program remains the only one of its kind, a number of other cities are having conversations about implementing something similar, including Albuquerque, New Mexico; Los Angeles; Oakland, California; and St. Louis.