A new way to reform: 'Democracy vouchers' vs. Citizens United

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Story highlights

  • For candidates who swear off super PACs, a new source of cash
  • Backers are readying Seattle-style reform plans across the country

(CNN)"Democracy vouchers" could be coming to an election near you.

Last week, more than 60% of Seattle voters approved the so-called "Honest Elections" measure, or Initiative 122, a campaign finance reform plan offering a novel way of steering public funds to candidates who are willing to swear off big money PACs.
For supporters, the victory -- authorizing the use by voters of publicly funded "democracy vouchers" that they can dole out to favored candidates -- marks what they hope will be the first step forward in a wide-ranging reform effort spreading to other cities and states in the coming year.
    "We're doing what marriage equality and gun rights have done on the left and the right," said Josh Silver, the director of Represent.us, a national nonpartisan campaign finance reform group that aided the Seattle effort.
    "Congress won't do it, so we're going to cities and states, passing laws at the ballot and re-drawing the political map of America state-by-state, setting up political dominoes and knocking them down all the way to Washington," he added.
    To that end, activists on Friday filed to put a similar initiative on the ballot in South Dakota. And they say there's more to come.
    Overturning Citizens United is not a priority for many proponents of "Honest Elections." They believe the ruling that allowed unlimited PAC donations is here to stay. Their focus now is on ways to diminish its effect by flooding the zone with public money and a promise to manage the process with fairness and transparency.
    The voucher model also is "a one-two punch" for candidates, Silver said. "They become more dependent on their constituents because their constituents become their funders, and No. 2, they're part of what I would call a 'dilution strategy' — you dilute the space with lots of small-dollar contributions to offset the undue influence of super PACs."

    How "democracy vouchers" work

    Beginning next summer, Seattle voters are expected to begin receiving $100 from the city, parceled out in four $25 vouchers, to contribute to local candidates who accept the new law's restrictions, including not taking funds from PACs, adhering to strict spending caps, and enacting greater transparency. Candidates can redeem the vouchers with the city for real campaign cash, which will likely flow from increased property taxes.
    The reform effort began at the grassroots, but morphed into a slickly managed operation that spent nearly $1.4 million, with more than half of that flowing from groups outside the city.
    Alan Durning, founder of the nonprofit sustainability think tank Sightline, is an architect of the Seattle initiative. He believes the campaign helped identify a key problem with other reform plans.
    "We know that one of the strongest arguments against public funding for campaigns is the idea of giving tax dollars to candidates that you disagree with," Durning told CNN. "There are a lot of people who hate the idea."
    Currently, most such programs offer to match with public funds small donations for candidates who meet a host of varying requirements. In these cases, taxpayer money goes directly from the government to the campaigns, limiting voters' connection to the process.
    "The benefit of vouchers ... is you can think about it as giving the first $100 of your own taxes to the candidate that you prefer," Durning explained. "Your money is going to the candidate you send it to — so it keeps the choice with the individual voter."
    He added that the use of vouchers can also help the approach appeal to conservative voters, who generally are supportive of voucher-type programs and choice.
    But critics call that a misleading argument.
    "You're still taking money from people and giving it to politicians who they may not necessarily want to support," said Patrick Basham, the founder and director of the Democracy Institute, a libertarian think tank.
    "Now, if you, as Voter X, give your four $25 vouchers to Candidate Y, then that's your choice, but only some of [the money] came from you. It also came from other people."

    Beyond Seattle

    In Seattle, opponents of "democracy vouchers" tried to rally toward the end of the campaign, with Microsoft chipping in about $10,000 in the final weeks before the vote. The "No Election Vouchers" group argued that Seattle shouldn't be a testing ground for an unproven program and warned that special interests could gain power by trying to exploit potential loopholes in the voucher system.
    But Heather Weiner, the political consultant who directed the "Honest Elections" campaign, said passage was boosted in part by a corruption scandal.
    "This was going to be hard," Weiner said she recalled thinking when she first joined the effort, "because it's Seattle. We think of ourselves as pretty clean and pretty fair. And it's going to be hard to convince people there is a problem here."
    "Luckily for us," she added with a laugh, "the big money interests did that for us this year. We even had a bribery and extortion scandal in the middle of October."
    The real test of the Seattle plan's appeal will come in 2016.
    In South Dakota, the ballot measure is called "The government accountability and anti-corruption act" and it too would wrap a voucher system — in this case, "two $50 credits to donate to state candidates" — in a blanket of ethics reforms. There are plans for a more ambitious campaign in Washington state and, eventually, in federal congressional races.
    But Ken Boehm, chairman of the right-leaning National Legal and Policy Center, argues the reform movement has a basic flaw, as candidates who accept the vouchers are blown out of the water by bigger spenders.
    "If the opponent signs up for this, they get their little vouchers and they can send out some posters and stuff, but in terms of voter contact, they're getting creamed," Boehm said. "I don't know how they address that and they can't, because constitutionally you can't put an overall cap on spending."