Gotham Gazette

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To Have Truly People-Powered Campaigns, We Need Democracy Vouchers

corrupt fix

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

We’re just a few months into 2020, and it has been the focus for much of the country for months, if not years, and for good reason -- it is the most important election our democracy has faced in decades. While voter turnout is projected to be record-breaking this year, one of the greatest inequalities of our democracy still needs serious legislative reform: campaign finance.

In 2016, 15% of Americans reported making a political donation, but only 0.52% of the population controlled 67.8% of the total political donations by donating at least $200. Two years later, in 2018, the numbers were worse: 0.47% of the population contributed at least $200 to a campaign, but totaled 71% of all political donations.

Up and down the ballot, more and more candidates are making voluntary pledges to reject corporate PAC money and donations from special interest groups. Several Democratic presidential primary candidates are breaking records with their number of small-dollar donors. But these are voluntary pledges and candidates down the ballot will never be able to match the energy surrounding a presidential campaign.

Although we come from different backgrounds, we have both worked to serve our communities and have run for office against machine-backed candidates. As we can both attest, raising enough money to take on the establishment is hard and we have seen firsthand the impact of corporate money in campaigns -- and the power in the movement to remove special interest money from politics altogether.

It will take legislative change to elevate the value of small-dollar donors and fully get special interest money out of politics.

The most exciting idea, a proposal with potentially transformative effects, is Democracy Vouchers at the federal level. Democracy Vouchers are a simple concept - jurisdictions grant voters vouchers of a select dollar amount that they can donate to the candidates of their choice, as long as the candidates vow to meet certain contribution limits.

For example, every voter in America could get $50 under legislation proposed by Rep. Ro Khanna. They could only use that $50 on federal elections. People know that money matters in campaigns, and because of that, they feel (more) shut out.

Democracy Vouchers have proven to be effective — Seattle voted to implement Democracy Vouchers in 2015 and then piloted its program in 2017. The initial impact of the voucher program included doubling the percentage of giving coming from people under the age of 25 and an increase in people of color making donations. The time for Democracy Vouchers to be more widely implemented has come.

Their ability to empower people to become further engaged in the political process is tremendously important, especially in low-income areas. For too long, candidates, especially challengers, running in low-income areas have had to fundraise outside their communities to run viable campaigns — necessarily giving outsiders the power to decide what matters most and protecting incumbents. Democracy Vouchers would serve as an equalizer for all donors and create greater opportunity for low-income communities to donate to the candidates they believe in.  

If we are going to continue the progress we made in 2018 to create the most diverse Congress in history, we must find ways to level the playing field so that more candidates, including women and people of color, are empowered to run. If we are truly going to rid special interests from politics, we must institute public campaign financing through Democracy Vouchers at the federal level and hold leaders accountable for letting corporations -- not people -- dictate their leadership.

Adem Bunkedekko is a candidate for Congress in New York’s 9th District, covering parts of Brooklyn. Zephyr Teachout is a law professor. On Twitter @ZephyrTeachout & @adembunkeddeko.

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