Let the unwealthy participate in politics

Let the unwealthy participate in politics

When I ran for City Council in 2020 against seasoned politician Mark Ridley-Thomas, I learned that money’s influence in our local politics runs deeper than I had thought. As an incumbent L.A. County supervisor, he had an unending stream of funds to reach voters. Meanwhile, I campaigned door to door.

I struggled to raise money while my opponent raised nearly $900,000, mostly from wealthy contributors, out-of-state donors and powerful special interests. If you scroll through the fundraising statements of many L.A. politicians, you’ll see page after page of $800 donations — the legal maximum a donor can give to an individual candidate in a City Council election. These donors are wealthier and less diverse than the general population in Los Angeles, and their voices are disproportionately loud when our City Council makes decisions.

But who from District 10, filled chiefly with working-class people of color, could contribute to a political campaign when the average resident earns $47,000 a year? Most people can’t afford to donate anything, much less $800. All Angelenos deserve a voice in city policy but often are left out of the conversation.

Democracy “vouchers” are one solution to this problem. Used in Seattle since 2017, every city resident gets four vouchers worth $25 each to donate to local candidates. The result is a donor pool more diverse by race, income and age and the city’s most diverse mayoral field ever.

In Los Angeles, advocates want to create a similar program. This would be a game-changer for grassroots campaigns. With democracy vouchers, we can begin to build an open and equitable campaign finance system that represents all our residents, not just wealthy donors and special interests.

Aura Vasquez is a former candidate for City Council, consultant and community organizer.

Note: This text was originally published in the LA Times as part of a joint op-ed "10 ideas for fixing Los Angeles"