Evaluating Seattle's Democracy Vouchers

In 2015, voters in Seattle, Washington passed I-122, an initiative to create a taxpayer-funded “democracy vouchers” program to finance municipal elections.  Concerned about the growing influence of money in politics, proponents of I-122 argued that a public campaign finance system would return control of local politics to the residents of Seattle.

In this ongoing project, my colleague Jen Heerwig (Stony Brook University) and I seek to understand the impact of the voucher program on patterns of inequality in municipal finance.  Our first paper, forthcoming in the Urban Affairs Review, asks who fund municipal elections. Drawing on administrative records from the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, we examine the distribution of campaign contributions in the 2013 municipal election – the last citywide election before voters passed the voucher initiative.  We ask whether candidates build fundraising coalitions comprised primarily of small-dollar donors or whether they rely heavily on high-dollar donors to fund their campaigns, and whether campaign contributors are concentrated in specific Seattle neighborhoods.

In future research, we will analyze who uses their voucher and whether the socioeconomic composition of campaign donors shifts as a result of the voucher program.  Then, we will examine whether the democracy voucher program stimulates other forms of political engagement, including voting in the election.  Finally, we will look at the geographic concentration of voucher users compared to other contributors in the elections to determine whether candidates for office diversified their geographic donor base as a result of the voucher program.