Democracy Vouchers: An Answer to Civic Engagement Obstacles?
July 22, 2019 by Benjamin Kamelhar
by Alexis Christensen
As Political Action Committees (PACs) continue to dominate today’s political landscape, the voice of average citizens can be muted in politics. In response, cities are countering corporate and wealthy individuals’ influence in elections through innovative public financing tools. One such tool is a Democracy Voucher.
In 2017, Seattle, Washington began the Democracy Vouchers program, in which eligible Seattle residents receive four twenty-five dollar vouchers they can then “redeem”—or effectively donate—to a local candidate of their choice. Residents can assign all $100 to one candidate or spread the vouchers among a number of candidates. Residents are eligible to receive vouchers if they meet the following criteria:
- At least 18 years old;
- Natural person;
- Resided within the city of Seattle for more than 30 days;
- Registered to vote under local, state, or federal law; and
- Eligible to donate to a political campaign under federal law.
Democracy Vouchers are intended to increase citizens’ participation in the democratic process by providing an avenue to contribute financially to local campaigns.
To collect Democracy Vouchers, a candidate must be running for mayor, city attorney, city council-at-large, or city council district positions. Candidates must file with the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission (SEEC) and comply with the requirements of the voucher program. Such requirements include participating in at least three public debates for primary and general elections, complying with campaign laws and contribution limits, and not knowingly soliciting any money on behalf of any PAC or political party or organization that “will make an independent expenditure for or against any City of Seattle candidate within the same election cycle.” To fund the Democracy Vouchers, the City of Seattle levied a property tax to be collected between 2016 and 2025.
In total, 20,727 residents (approximately 4%) of eligible individuals returned their vouchers, doubling the number of residents who participated in cash contributions from the previous year. Independent evaluators found “wealthy, white and older residents were more likely to return their vouchers than low-income, young and non-white residents.” Individuals with incomes of $30,000 or below only made up 2% of cash donors; however, they made up 4% of voucher users. Individuals with income of $100,000 or more made up 24% of cash donors and 16% of voucher users. Black and Hispanic eligible residents returned their vouchers at a much lower rate of 2.4% and 2.71% respectively. Significantly, the evaluators concluded that “voucher users were more representative of the electorate than cash contributors” and that voucher contributions relied “less heavily on the wealthy.”
Democracy Vouchers may be innovative, but questions remain concerning its efficacy to expand and diversify the pool of political participants in the electoral process. Particularly, the model struggles with engaging low-income residents and people of color. Civic engagement is an obstacle across the economic spectrum but more so with people in poverty due to historic disenfranchisement. The Democracy Voucher program unwittingly entrenches systemic barriers people in poverty face when attempting to engage politically. For example, vouchers are mailed or emailed to eligible residents. Though the use of email is a technological advance, Seattle/King County has a total of 12,112 homeless individuals. It would be quite difficult for homeless individuals to receive their vouchers if they have no home, are transitioning between shelters, or do not have access to the Internet.
Another barrier for people in poverty is that eligible residents must return their voucher to either the candidate themselves, a representative of the candidate, the SEEC office, or via the SEEC’s online system. For people experiencing poverty, these drop-off points may be inaccessible due to a lack of transportation or access to the Internet. If Seattle broadened the number or type of official drop-off points, people in poverty may be more likely to participate in the program. For example, establishing drop-off points with social service organizations, legal aid centers, and religious organizations may encourage residents to participate in the program if they already frequent these locations for assistance.
Despite its shortcomings, Seattle’s voucher program has a bright future. The program has inspired other cities like Austin, Texas and Albuquerque, New Mexico to consider instituting a voucher program. With only one election under its belt, Seattle has ample time to reevaluate its methods to ensure greater racial and economic diversity among its participants.
 See Seattle, Wash. Mun. Code § 2.04 (2015).
 § 2.04.620
 § 2.04.630
 Honest Elections Seattle Initiative, Initiative 122 Section 2 (Nov. 11, 2015), https://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/EthicsElections/DemocracyVoucher/I-122%20Text-%20Master.pdf.
 See Jennifer Heerwig & Brian J. McCabe, Expanding Participation in Municipal Elections: Assessing the Impact of Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program, Univ. of Washington Ctr. for Studies in Demography & Ecology, 1-2 (Last visited Feb. 18, 2019), https://www.jenheerwig.com/uploads/1/3/2/1/13210230/mccabe_heerwig_seattle_voucher_4.03.pdf.
 Id. at 1.
 Id. at 4.
 Id. at 2, fig.3.
 Id. at 4.
 See Daniel Weeks, Why Are the Poor and Minorities Less Likely to Vote?, Atlantic (Jan. 10, 2014), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/01/why-are-the-poor-and-minorities-less-likely-to-vote/282896.
 All Home & Applied Survey Research, Count Us In: Seattle/King County Point-in-Time Counts of People Experiencing Homelessness 8 (2018), http://allhomekc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/FINALDRAFT-COUNTUSIN2018REPORT-5.25.18.pdf.
 See Seattle, Wash., Mun. Code § 2.04 (2015).
 Tanvi Misra, More Cities Want to Embrace ‘Democracy Vouchers’, CityLab (Aug. 8, 2018), https://www.citylab.com/equity/2018/08/more-cities-want-to-embrace-democracy-dollars/566801.