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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Democracy vouchers return power to voters

The Columbian
Published: September 7, 2022, 6:03am

A quick look at OpenSecrets.org reveals one of the major flaws of the U.S. election system.

There we find that at least 100 Americans have donated more than $1 million to indirect campaign groups for the 2022 election. Following the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, there are no limits on what influencers may donate to outside super PACs, which then can assist with a candidate’s campaign.

The result is a bastardization of democracy, with wealthy political activists wielding oversized clout on elections. All of which makes Seattle’s “democracy vouchers” worthy of consideration.

In 2015, Seattle voters approved a system designed to give average citizens more of a say in how local campaigns are financed. The vote established a 10-year, $30 million property tax levy to fund the vouchers, and it remains the only such program in the nation.

Under the plan, Seattle residents receive four $25 vouchers in the mail and may donate them to any candidate who agrees to participate in the program. The vouchers, like most political donations, are public record.

The voucher program was implemented in 2017, meaning it has been in place for three off-year cycles that feature local elections. And it has drawn attention from political watchers throughout the country.

“We have a really deep interest in it,” Brian J. McCabe, an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., told The Seattle Times. “It could revolutionize local elections.”

McCabe is the co-author of a new study about the program. That study found that residents are increasingly donating the vouchers — and that donations increasingly reflect the city’s demographics. “There are just more and more donors every year,” he said, “and one of the program’s success stories is that more people are participating in local elections.”

The study shows that the use of vouchers has increased among all groups, but particularly among Blacks, Hispanics and young voters. In the process, it enhances citizens’ sense of participation in the process.

In 2016, Washington voters rejected a similar statewide program with 54 percent of the vote. Part of the problem with Initiative 1464 was that it included an incongruous item that would have removed sales-tax exemptions for out-of-state shoppers in Washington. As The Columbian wrote editorially at the time: “The idea of campaign-finance reform is one that is long overdue and would be worthy of consideration if not for the poison pill of removing the sales-tax exemption.”

Washington voters should be given an opportunity to rethink democracy vouchers — and that chance should not include any extraneous items. Meanwhile, municipalities throughout the state should consider vouchers for local elections.

As the past two years have shown, our democracy is fragile. A sitting president lied about election results and inspired supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to halt the transfer of power. There was an effort to install phony electors in the Electoral College. Several states have made it easier for election officials to ignore the will of the people.

All of that is a function of a system that diminishes the influence of common people and elevates oligarchs. All of that is a reflection of weakness in our democracy. All of that is a threat to our nation.

Democracy vouchers do not solve all of the issues with American elections. But they have played a small role in returning power to voters, at least at the local level in Seattle, and they warrant wider consideration.