The Battle In Seattle: Democracy Vouchers vs. Corporate Money

Terrance Heath

In Seattle, Washington, a ballot initiative that could wrest power away from corporate interests and big money donors and change the way we do democracy comes up for a vote.

On Tuesday, Seattle residents will vote on Initiative 122. The ballot initiative is the brainchild of Honest Elections Seattle — an organization that seeks to loosen the grip of the “donor class” on local government.

According to the organization’s fact sheet, Initiative 122 (I–122) would “keep Seattle of, by and for the people” by:

  1. Limiting influence of big money interests in city policymaking. I–122 limits the contributions of corporate interests that spend significant funds lobbing city hall and corporations with large ($250,000+) city contracts.
  2. Ensuring candidates focus less on needs of big money donors, and spend more time listening to
    voters.
    I–122 limits contributions to no more than $500 in all city races, and limits campaign spending by candidates who receive public financing. It also imposes a “cooling off period” of three years before any former mayor, city council member, city attorney, city department head, or a top aide to one of those jobs could become a paid lobbyist in the city.
  3. Increasing accountability and transparency in local government. I–122 tightens campaign reporting deadlines and increases transparency with electronic disclosure requirements, and increases fines & penalties on those breaking election rules.
  4. Giving ordinary people a stronger voice in local government. I–122:
    1. Enables more candidates, including women, young people and people of color, to run viable
      campaigns against big money candidates.
    2. Allows ordinary people to support candidates of their choice with four $25 Democracy Vouchers.

You heard right: Democracy Vouchers. The idea dates back to 2004, when Yale University law professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres published Voting With Dollars: A New Paradigm for Campaign Finance. Ackerman and Ayres proposed providing $50 in “patriot dollars” to each voter to contribute to their favorite candidates, provided the candidates opted into the public financing system.

More recently, Harvard professor and former Democratic presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig endorsed the concept. There’s some support for the idea in Congress, too. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) includes vouchers as part of a program to increase small donation with public funds in his Government by the People Act.

With more than a little cheekiness, I–122 takes a favorite right-wing trick, turns it on its head, and uses it to take back power from corporate interests and put it back in the hands of the people. What republicans use to gut public schools and destroy the safety net, progressive activists in Seattle are using to level the political playing field, and reclaim democracy at the local level.

Here’s how it would work.

  • Every time there’s a city election, voters would be mailed coupons worth $100. That way, everyone starts with the same $100 to contribute to the candidate or candidates of their choice. (The vouchers would be funded by a 10-year, $30 million property-tax levy.)
  • Candidates would opt-in to the system, solicit vouchers from voters, then redeem them for cash to spend on their campaigns.
  • Candidates would get contributions from people who don’t normally have money to contribute to local elections, and they’d have to interact with voters to get it.
  • Candidates would also face new rules, like spending caps that vary depending on the office sought.

I–122 allow a broader set of people to contribute to politics. Currently, about 0.3 percent of Seattle residents make up half the contributors to political campaigns.

It could become easier for almost anyone to run for office, by opening a whole new path to financing a campaign. No longer would not being wealthy or well-connected be a barrier to running for office. Well-funded incumbents might need to be shamed into opting in, or come up with a good excuse for continuing to take big dollars from corporate interests when a publicly financed path exists.

Will Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers catch on? If I–122 passes on Tuesday, the idea could spread to other cities, giving state and local governments important tools to limit the influence of big money in a post-Citizens United world.

According to legend, former House Speaker Tip O’Neil received a word of advice from his father, upon losing his bid for the Cambridge City Council: “All politics is local.” If Seattle shows the way, changing local politics may prove the key to change on the national political scene.

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