New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wants to bring Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers program to the rest of the country.
Gillibrand, one of nearly two dozen Democratic presidential candidates, recently announced a proposal, based on Seattle’s fledgling public campaign finance system, to give every potential American voter up to $600 in vouchers per election cycle to contribute to U.S. House, Senate and presidential candidates.
Gillibrand would give $200 worth of “Democracy Dollars,” to be split evenly between primary and general elections, to each adult American citizen, for each federal election that they can vote in. So a voter would get $200 of vouchers every two years for a U.S. House race, an additional $200 worth every four years for the presidential race and another $200 worth every time there’s a Senate election in their state.
Voters could then choose which candidates to give their vouchers to, out of any candidate who meets a so-far unspecified “qualifying threshold.” To receive Democracy Dollars, candidates would have to agree to strict fundraising limits — they could not accept any donations larger than $200. Currently, the maximum donation that federal candidates can accept from a donor is $2,800 per election.
Voters could divvy up their vouchers among several candidates, in $10 increments.
“By providing ‘Democracy Dollars’ to eligible voters and making politicians swear off donations of more than $200 to receive them, we can empower hardworking Americans and dwarf the power of any billionaire’s super PAC,” Gillibrand said in a news release announcing her plan.
“My federal plan is modeled in part on a successful program currently being used in Seattle,” Gillibrand wrote. “It’s the first U.S. jurisdiction to run a plan like this.”
The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which administers the Democracy Voucher program, said Gillibrand’s campaign did not reach out for information or guidance before announcing her proposal. Gillibrand’s campaign did not respond to an interview request.
Gillibrand has so far lagged in both polling and fundraising numbers in the crowded Democratic field. She raised just under $3 million in the first quarter of 2019, with more than 80 percent of it coming from donations of at least $300.
Gillibrand’s proposal would be paid for by eliminating “a taxpayer subsidy that is currently enjoyed by CEOs who make excessive salaries.” Her campaign said it would raise more than $60 billion over 10 years, but did not offer specifics on the subsidy. Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers are funded by a property tax that brings in about $3 million a year.
The Democracy Voucher program is currently pending before the state Supreme Court, after two Seattle property owners filed a lawsuit claiming it violates their free-speech rights by using their tax dollars “for political campaigns I may or may not agree with.” A King County Superior Court judge previously upheld the program.
Seattle voters approved Democracy Vouchers in 2015, giving each city voter $100 in vouchers for each city election year, to be donated in $25 increments to candidates for City Council, city attorney and, beginning in 2021, mayor.
Candidates, like in Gillibrand’s plan, must meet a qualifying threshold and agree to spending limits to accept Democracy Vouchers: no individual contributions above $250 ($500 for mayoral candidates) and a total campaign spending limit ranging from $150,000 for City Council district candidates to $800,000 for mayoral candidates.
In 2017, the first time the program was in effect, five of the six general-election candidates eligible to use Democracy Vouchers participated, and abided by the spending limits that came with participation. Seattle voters assigned just over 72,000 $25 vouchers to their preferred candidates.
This year, participation looks like it will be much larger. In 2017, through the end of May, voters had returned about 14,900 Democracy Vouchers, with return rates increasing significantly as the August primary and November general election neared. This year, with about two weeks left in the month, voters have already returned more than 54,000 vouchers.
In seven separate City Council races, there are at least 48 candidates who have met the qualifying threshold and collected at least one Democracy Voucher.
And the vouchers seem to be achieving their goal of helping to broaden the base of people who donate to political campaigns, even if they haven’t expunged big money from city politics.
One early analysis of the 2017 primary found that donors to mayoral candidates — who could not yet accept Democracy Vouchers — were, on the whole, older, richer and whiter than donors who used Democracy Vouchers in races for City Council and city attorney.
” ‘Democracy Dollar’ donors better reflected Seattle’s population including young people, women, people of color and less affluent residents,” Gillibrand wrote.