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Diversifying the Donor Pool: Did Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program Help Reshape Participation in Municipal Campaign Finance?
In this paper, we evaluate whether an innovative new campaign finance program in Seattle, Washington shifted the composition of campaign donors in local elections.  In 2015, voters in Seattle approved the creation of the Democracy Voucher program with the intent of broadening representation in the campaign finance system and expanding participation from marginalized communities. Every registered voter in Seattle was provided with four, twenty-five-dollar vouchers that they could, in turn, assign to the local candidate(s) of their choice.  Through an analysis of the inaugural implementation of the program in 2017, we investigate whether this innovative public financing system increased participation, broadened involvement from underrepresented groups and led to a donor pool that was more representative of the electorate. Compared to cash donors in the municipal election, we report that voucher users are less likely to be high-income and more likely to come from poor neighborhoods.  While older residents are over-represented among voucher users, there is little difference in the racial composition of cash donors and voucher users.  Our analysis confirms that the Democracy Voucher program successfully moved the donor pool in a more egalitarian direction, although it remains demographically unrepresentative of the electorate.  The lessons from Seattle’s inaugural implementation offer key insights for other municipalities considering public financing policies, and these lessons have the potential to reshape the national policy debate about the influence of political money. 

High-Dollar Donors and Donor-Rich Neighborhoods: Representational Distortion in Financing a Municipal Election in Seattle
Candidates for municipal office collect millions of dollars to fund their campaigns. While previous research about local fundraising coalitions investigates the role of specific interest groups – for example, real estate professionals and developers – and donors outside the political jurisdiction, there has been little systematic investigation of individual donors classified by the size of their contribution or their geographic concentration within the city itself. In this paper, we draw on administrative records of campaign contributions from the 2013 Seattle elections to answer two questions about the financing of municipal elections. First, drawing on research from federal elections, 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. In Seattle, we find that only one-fifth of donors in the mayoral election contributed at least $500, but their contributions account for fifty-five percent of the money raised in the election. Next, we ask how concentrated campaign contributors are within Seattle neighborhoods. Candidates collected nearly twenty-five percent of their funds from the wealthiest ten percent of neighborhoods. By pointing to an outsized role for high-dollar donors and donors concentrated in affluent neighborhoods, this paper identifies a critical dimension of representational distortion in municipal elections. In doing so, it opens a new window into the local campaign finance system - an aspect of our political process that has been largely overlooked in research on campaigns and elections. ​

Policy Reports, 2017-2021

Broadening Donor Participation in Local Elections: Results from the Seattle Democracy Voucher Program in 2021
The Democracy Voucher program in Seattle completed its third election in 2021. The 2021 cycle featured an open seat mayoral race, two at-large city council contests, and the race for city attorney. Six of the eight general elections candidates funded their campaigns with democracy vouchers.

Building a More Diverse Donor Coalition: An Analysis of the Seattle Democracy Voucher Program in the 2019 Election Cycle

After a successful inaugural implementation in 2017, the Democracy Voucher program provided public financing in seven districted City Council races in 2019. Thirty-five candidates used the program in the primary, including twelve who went on to use the program in the general election.


Expanding Participation in Municipal Elections: Assessing the Impact of Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program

In 2015, voters in Seattle approved the Democracy Voucher program to radically reshape the way municipal elections are funded. By providing vouchers to every registered voter in the city, the program aimed to broaden the donor pool and diversify contributors in local elections. Seattle is the first city in the United States to implement this type of public financing program.

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