Campaign Finance Innovations Make Waves in American Democracy

Few of us trust our government anymore, particularly when it comes to money. At this very moment, faith in our democracy is being undermined by the Russia scandal and questionable personal financial ties among key members of the Trump regime. All this is only serving to further alienate a generation already jaded by the sexual misconduct that has been ongoing — and largely unpunished — in our political and economic institutions for decades. But rather than accept the status quo, the upcoming leaders in some of America’s most influential communities are working to improve our democracy, starting with its cornerstone: money.

Even though it may be critical to the long-term survival of our democracy, campaign finance reform isn’t a top priority for federal lawmakers. This isn’t surprising given how fat national policymakers have gotten by taking privileges under current policies, but the winds of change are blowing. In fact, cities are developing innovative new approaches that offer an elegant and simple solution to the threats our current system of campaign finance poses to our democracy.

Campaign Finance Issues Ripple Across U.S. Political System

The fundamental theory behind democracy is that every vote counts. This means that the entire population of a given jurisdiction elects a representative to make policy decisions on its behalf — not just those of us with social or economic power. But while a particular representative may be legally obligated to act in the best interests of the people in his or her jurisdiction, financial ties may lead to questionable policy decisions.

As campaign finance rules exist today, it is easier and more lucrative for candidates to fund their campaigns with money from large donors or Political Action Committees (“PAC”). The fact that PACs can buy political power under the current system has caused Americans to become highly skeptical about the effective functioning of our democracy. And while there are plenty of reasons why we should vote regardless of the current state of our campaign finance policies, this lack of trust causes many people to opt out of political participation altogether. The sense of disenfranchisement that many — if not most — Americans feel makes low voter turnout a constant problem and perpetuates the election of political leaders that are not effective representatives for the people actually living in their districts.

While federal lawmakers largely ignore the problem, local governments are finding innovations in campaign finance in order to build greater confidence in local voting systems. For example, some cities have started introducing new non-cash financial products to voters to help get big money out of politics. In this way, these jurisdictions are allowing voters to have a greater economic influence on our political process. And so far, these campaign finance innovations have had a huge impact on local elections.

Democracy Vouchers — a Campaign Finance Innovation

Democracy vouchers are vouchers distributed to eligible voters of a city to use as cash donations for their candidate of choice. The motivation behind the voucher program is to provide resources for constituents who might not otherwise have access to the huge amounts of cash it takes to run for office. The program also aims to encourage political participation on both sides of the ballot box.

Having constituents directly fund a candidate’s campaign means the candidate actually has to get out into the district and interact with the community he or she is meant to represent. Candidates go from taking meetings with donors to talking directly with community members and making real promises for their initiatives. Talking with constituents directly opens dialog, exposing our elected officials to the problems relevant in their jurisdictions and giving them the tools they need to find solutions. Inevitably, this creates a more trusting relationship between community members and the politicians that represent them. In the long term, this increases the efficiency of democratic decision making and introduces the diversity our elected officials need to comprise an accurate representation of the American public.

Democracy Vouchers Prove Promising in Local Elections

Seattle, Austin, and Albuquerque, are three of the largest cities that have undertaken democracy voucher initiatives. Before becoming eligible to participate in the voucher programs, candidates in these cities first had to qualify by obtaining a certain number of supporter signatures or a specified amount of funds. Once qualified, candidates have a maximum amount of funds they can receive in democracy voucher donations. Participating candidates using vouchers are held to the same existing campaign spending laws that apply to cash donations, and they must spend the money received on campaign related purchases.

Seattle launched its democracy voucher program by sending each eligible voter $100 in non-cash campaign funds, denominated in four $25 vouchers, to sign over to their preferred local candidate. Registered voters automatically received a voucher in the mail, and non-registered voters could download an application for vouchers. And while the program’s launch was certainly not without its challenges, it was a resounding success.

In Seattle, voucher use improved voter participation substantially. Voters with incomes below $50,000 participated at rates more than double what was recorded in similar races that did not use the voucher program. In addition, the voucher program attracted greater participation of individuals under the age of 25 and greater participation of minority voters.

The funding for Seattle’s vouches came after voters approved a property tax in 2015 which will raise an estimated $3 million per year for 10 years to fund the program. However, financial challenges remain a major roadblock to the implementation of financial innovations like democracy vouchers in other jurisdictions. For example, Austin doesn’t have enough funding for its program for all voters to have a voucher, so the system only provides them on a first-come-first-served basis.

Seattle saw greater voter participation as a result of its democracy voucher program, but this isn’t the only potential benefit of innovating new approaches to campaign finance. These programs also the effect of encouraging outsiders to run for office, providing much-needed stimulation for the stagnant American electorate.

Innovation Stimulates Political Progress

Democracy vouchers and similar innovative public policy programs make political office more accessible to advocates, community leaders, and candidates who might not otherwise have the resources to run for these positions. Over time, this will level and diversify the political playing field and promote candidates that are insulated against the influences of big-money politics.

New innovations in campaign finance that increase the competitiveness of the funding market for political campaigns will stimulate political process. This is because opening up the campaign finance market increases opportunities for outsiders. Only the most motivated and organized candidates will benefit from programs like democracy vouchers, which means that jurisdictions applying these policies will develop a higher-quality electorate over time.

Samantha Joule Fow writes for Axiom Communications, Inc., a technical writing and digital marketing firm that offers research and communications services to clients across the public and private sectors.