The experiment to save American democracy is happening, right now. And if you’re an American desperate to see a solution to the corrupt status quo, you should be paying attention.
In late 2015, the people of Seattle voted to free their political system from the corrupting influence of big money. Through a ballot measure, they created Democracy Vouchers, a simple yet revolutionary system where each Seattle voter can give up to four $25 vouchers to candidates running for city office.
The catch? Only candidates who swear off big contributions get to accept these vouchers.
This is the first time vouchers like these have ever been used in elections, and it’s working.
In Seattle’s recent primary election, two of the eight candidates in the most competitive city council race took the patriotic plunge and declared they wouldn’t accept campaign contributions greater than $250.
Then, instead of holding high-end dinners and fundraisers at upscale homes, they pounded the pavement, knocked on doors, and started actually talking with voters to win their support — and their vouchers.
This strategy paid off: they each collected thousands of vouchers, not only making their campaigns competitive against big money-backed candidates but giving them an edge with voters who are overwhelmingly disgusted with large donor, business as usual politics.
On August 1, Seattle’s two voucher-backed candidates received the most votes in the primary, meaning they’ll face off against each other in November’s general election. Whoever wins, the Democracy Voucher system has ensured that Seattle voters will be represented by someone who is accountable only to them -- not to the special interests who dominate politics in most of America.
To every American who’s looking for a solution to big money elections and lobbyist-controlled policymaking, let Seattle be your ray of hope.
Consider this your invitation to pay attention and to get involved: Seattle is proving that there is a viable path toward restoring government controlled by the people.
And if this experiment continues to succeed, it will breathe new life into burgeoning efforts to upend status quo politics.
The urgency of this cannot be understated. Our rigged system favors big money special interests over the public interest. Too often, it prevents politicians from making rational, common sense decisions. It drives the polarization that grips Washington D.C., and increasingly infects our state capitols and city councils. It breeds cynicism, disgust, and apathy.
Key to Seattle’s innovation is this simple truth: incentivizing elected officials to focus on small-dollar donors rather than big money doesn’t just make them more responsive and accountable -- it transforms political participation.
And by giving every voter the chance to contribute, Seattle invites regular people -- the kind without wealthy friends or lobbyist pals -- to run and win.
In fact, the two Democracy Voucher candidates alone each received contributions from over 4,200 people, all of whom were small-dollar donors. Meanwhile, the third-place business-backed candidate collected 60% of her money from donors giving over $400, and received contributions from only 700 people.
In just a matter of months, this program has shown that when the playing field is leveled between the public interest and special interests, small-donor candidates don’t just compete -- they can win.
Some might assume that amplifying the voices of everyday people comes at a great cost to Seattle, but let’s be clear: this program is not expensive. In reality, it costs less than one-tenth of one percent of the city’s budget.
If the Seattle budget was the area of a one dollar bill, that’s equal to the size of George Washington’s right eye.
Better still, it’s paid for by a tiny property tax: For a Seattle couple with a home worth $250,000, the program to save democracy costs just 40 cents per month in taxes -- annually, the price of one Starbucks latte.
Though the general election is still yet to be held, Seattle’s novel campaign finance reboot has already proven worthy of national attention -- and admiration. They’ve made it exceedingly clear that when small-dollar donors can participate, candidates who spend their time door-knocking, talking, and listening to their constituents can actually win.
They’ve shown that when voters unite to say “we demand better” and take to the ballot boxes to make it so, they don’t only improve their community, they create a new, game-changing model for the whole country.
And they’ve infused energy into the fast-growing grassroots anti-corruption movement across the country, proving that when the people take matters into their own hands, they can unrig the broken system of American politics.
Democracy Vouchers are a groundbreaking innovation that is working, and is poised to provide inspiration for a nation that desperately needs some.