What are democracy vouchers?
Democracy vouchers are like political gift cards. Every city resident gets a few vouchers they can “donate” to candidates. Campaigns redeem their vouchers with the city for money to fund their campaigns.
Who can donate democracy vouchers?
Under our proposal, every adult who lives in Los Angeles City would receive democracy vouchers to donate to local candidates. That includes both US citizens, and legal permanent residents who live in the city.
How do vouchers change who donates?
With democracy vouchers, anyone can donate — not just the wealthy. That means rich white men and special interests groups won’t dominate campaign donations anymore. In Seattle, democracy vouchers have made donors more representative in terms of race, income, and age.
What if only those who are already politically engaged use their vouchers?
As part of the program, Los Angeles will take steps to ensure that as many people as possible know about and can use their vouchers, like in Seattle. Steps like focus groups with underrepresented populations, informational mailers and videos to teach people how to use their vouchers, and running the program in multiple languages, all help to maximize inclusion.
If people don’t care about politics, why should we try to engage them?
We are all better off if everyone has the knowledge and resources to pay attention, learn about the issues, and participate in democracy. Our society suffers when only some people participate, while others are forced to sit back and watch. Today, many Americans would like to participate, but don’t because they know their voice will get drowned out. Democracy vouchers don’t guarantee that everyone will participate, but they remove wealth as a structural barrier to becoming a donor or a candidate.
How do vouchers change who runs for office?
In the current system, most politicians are forced to fundraise from big donors and special interests. That means people without wealthy connections are left behind, unable to run because they don’t have a rich fundraising network. With democracy vouchers, any network is a fundraising network, so anyone from any background can run for office.
What rules do candidates agree to when they accept vouchers?
Under our proposal, candidates will qualify with a small number of small donations, and then sign an agreement with the city before they can begin redeeming vouchers. In this agreement, candidates will agree to abide by limits on private contributions, an overall spending limit on their campaign, heightened disclosure requirements, and a ban on taking money from corporations and other special interests. If candidates don’t sign, that’s ok — they won’t be eligible for democracy vouchers, but they can still run under the old system, using private donations.
What if only some candidates choose to participate?
That’s ok! The candidates that do participate will be able to run without support from rich donors, and as demonstrated in Seattle, their campaigns will be very competitive. Public financing programs like democracy vouchers won’t always be able to close the gap entirely with private money, but can provide candidates with enough money to get their message out.
Can candidates using vouchers really compete with big money?
Yes. This isn’t theoretical: We’ve seen voucher candidates win against big money repeatedly in Seattle. Getting attacked by rich outside groups still hurts, but democracy vouchers provide candidates with adequate funding to get their message out. This means candidates have a real shot to win, even if they don’t have the most money of anyone in the race. Long term, we should absolutely do more to level the playing field, likely with a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United and Buckley. But with or without that in place, democracy vouchers can have a big effect.
How money impacts politics
Why is money in politics important?
Money is a major factor in who can start a campaign, which candidates gets elected, and what officials do once they’re in office. Remember, our elected officials have enormous power to set policy on the growing list of crises Los Angeles faces: issues like evictions, homelessness, climate disasters, and police violence. So long as non-Angelenos, special interests, and wealthy white neighborhoods continue to dominate campaign giving, those groups will continue to have outsized influence over city policy.
In 2016, the Clinton campaign had more money than the Trump campaign, but lost. So… why should I care about campaign finance?
Having more money never guarantees a victory, but having no money essentially guarantees a loss. Having enough money is essential to running a competitive campaign. In presidential elections, both candidates usually have enough money to spread their message, so the race comes down to policy ideas, partisanship, individual charisma, and other non-fundraising factors. Because of these factors, the presidential level is the level least in need of campaign finance reform. The most important changes will happen at the local, state, and congressional levels, where candidates don’t always have enough money to fund the basics of getting their message out, like hiring a staff or buying campaign mailers.
If money in politics is such a problem, why should we put more money into politics?
Money in politics isn’t really the problem, per se—the relevant question is whether it’s private money or public money. With the current system, politicians are forced to accommodate big donors to raise money, and ordinary people know they will struggle to run for office because they don’t have wealthy connections. Democracy vouchers put more money in politics, but into the hands of the people, so that anyone can run for office, and anyone can be a donor.
Where did the money come from in the last L.A. election?
In 2020, Los Angeles had 7 City Council races and 4 School Board races, with $32 million in political spending overall. At least half that money came from outside of Los Angeles — some from nearby cities like Beverly Hills, but lots from far away places with no connection to L.A. In fact, the single highest giving ZIP code was Park City, UT 84060.
Broken down another way, $10 million came from special interests, including corporations, unions, PACs, and other independent expenditure groups. When combined, special interests and donors from outside L.A. account for at least two-thirds of the money, meaning just one-third came from people who live in Los Angeles.
Even the donors who live in Los Angeles didn’t come from all across the city. They were overwhelmingly from wealthy white neighborhoods, like Century City and the Hollywood Hills. Almost no money came from the million Angelenos living in the city’s 20 ZIP codes with the highest shares of people of color, such as South L.A. and Boyle Heights.
Racial and wealth disparities in campaign contributions weren’t found only among donors who live in Los Angeles. Of all the money that came from individuals living outside city boundaries, over ninety-percent came from ZIP codes that are whiter than Los Angeles, underscoring the unrepresentative and exclusionary nature of the current campaign finance system.
To learn more, read our analysis methodology.
How is L.A. doing on other metrics of political engagement?
Local L.A. elections consistently have low voter turnout, evidence of a city not doing a good job engaging its residents with politics. Demonstrating this point, one headline from 2017 read “A 20% turnout in L.A.’s mayoral election wasn’t a record low after all, final results show.” Certainly, moving elections to even-years will help with turnout. But the underlying problem remains — Angelenos don’t feel engaged with local politics.
Folks love to bemoan problems decreased engagement and falling trust in government, often without offering any concrete policy solutions. Democracy vouchers offer a viable way to start rebuilding public participation and trusts, by ensuring that politicians are responsive to the people, not just to their donors.
Why are vouchers better than other solutions?
How does this compare to the existing matching funds program in Los Angeles?
The current program matches donations of $114 or less at a 6-to-1 rate. This system does a fine job increasing the diversity of the candidate pool and the power of existing donors. But many elected officials in Los Angeles are still beholden to special interests and power brokers outside the city because they need money for their campaigns.
At best, matching funds have shifted influence from the very wealthy (those who can donate the legal maximum of $800) to the wealthy (those who can donate the matched maximum of $114). Matching funds haven’t raised the voice of non-donors (who made up almost all of Los Angeles in 2020) and they haven’t broken the stranglehold of special interests over LA politics.
How does democracy vouchers compare to other sorts of public financing programs?
Matching funds and lump sum programs are positive steps—they just aren’t the best we can do because they still leave many people out, making it harder than it should be to become a donor or a candidate. Democracy vouchers incentivize candidates to talk to anyone and everyone who might support their message, even if they’re from a population that is traditionally less likely to vote. Matching funds and lump sum programs don’t accomplish this, just incentivizing candidates to talk to people who can give the maximum matched amount or are the most likely to vote. Democracy vouchers are the best system because they empower the most people to engage in democracy as donors, voters, constituents, and candidates.
Wouldn’t it be better to just overturn Citizens United?
A constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United would be fantastic, and is something we fully support. But not only should we not wait for that to happen, it wouldn’t be sufficient to create an open and equitable campaign finance system. Even before Citizens United, campaign donations came mostly from the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods in the country.
How much will implementing democracy vouchers in Los Angeles cost?
L.A.’s democracy vouchers program will cost on the order of $15 million per year, or a 0.14% increase in the city budget. This estimate comes from scaling Seattle’s program to the size of L.A.’s population.
How much does the existing program cost in Seattle, and how does Seattle pay for the program?
Seattle’s program costs $3 million per year, or 0.062% of the city budget at the time it was enacted. Seattle pays for the program through a 10-year property tax levy, which comes out to $8 per year for the average homeowner.
Wait… how can Seattle’s program cost $8 per homeowner if everyone gets $100 in vouchers.
First, the program is only run every other year. And second, not everyone uses their vouchers. In 2019, 8.5% of Seattle voters used at least one voucher, an increase in donor participation from before vouchers, but not a significant burden on the city’s ability to pay. Each election cycle, the Seattle Ethics & Elections Commission announces the maximum they will spend on redeemed vouchers. That limit has never been reached before, but if it was that would be another limitation on the cost of the program.
What if the program runs out of money?
When candidates join the program, they’ll face limits on the total number of vouchers they can redeem, so that the use of public money is limited. Los Angeles will also announce an overall limit on public spending, and alert candidates and the public if that number comes close.
Won’t candidates or outside groups try to buy vouchers?
There are several reasons why this isn’t a concern. First of all, as outlined above, any jurisdiction that enacted democracy vouchers would make buying vouchers a crime, just like buying votes. Second, voucher assignments will be public information. That means whistleblowers and opposing campaigns can identify violations. Finally, buying vouchers just wouldn’t be a feasible way to fund a campaign. Imagine going door-to-door, offering people money to redeem their vouchers, knowing that (a) they all have to stay quiet about it, or you could go to jail, (b) anyone can look at the records for suspicious patterns and can go talk to the people who gave you vouchers, and (c) the vouchers are only worth $25, so you have to do this thousands of times in order to fund your campaign. If you’re willing to work that hard and talk to that many people, it would be smarter to just run a legitimate campaign, and ask people to give you their vouchers as a donation.
Is this biased towards one party?
Candidates from any party can use the system, as long as they have public support. That means convincing more people becomes the source of political power, as it should be in a democracy.
Don’t vouchers effectively force people to support candidates they disagree with?
In fact, they do the exact opposite. Residents can give vouchers to whomever they want, so they have the power to support candidates they do agree with—or to run for office themselves if they’d like.
This sounds a bit complicated. Will this be too hard to administer?
There’s nothing about democracy vouchers that make the program more complex than many things local governments already do. At a basic level, the city or state government will need to keep a list of residents and mailing addresses, and send them their vouchers at the appropriate time. Other administrative tasks like tracking vouchers and facilitating the exchange of vouchers for campaign funds aren’t any more complicated than other aspects of managing elections. Tasks like voucher individualization, security, and redemption aren’t much more complicated than the individualization, security, and redemption systems that millions of businesses use when they sell gift cards.
Will it be too complicated for residents and candidates to understand?
The concept of a democracy voucher is no more complicated than a gift card, something millions of Americans use every year. Of course, like any new program, public understanding will increase over time. But in Seattle, public polling found that the vast majority of residents had heard of and approved of the program after just one cycle, boding well for the program’s future.
Where can I learn more?
If you want a more in depth look at how democracy vouchers work, you can start by visiting the Democracy Policy Network’s policy kit on democracy vouchers. One of the cofounders of LADV has a book about on democracy vouchers, going into much greater detail on how the program works, its effects, and how it’s implemented: you can buy a copy here.