Geoffrey Henderson and Hahrie Han
A decade on from the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the American campaign finance system remains deeply undemocratic. Fewer than one in four campaign dollars in the 2020 election came from people giving $200 or less, allowing wealthy Americans disproportionate influence over the outcome.
Seattle, Washington’s innovative “democracy voucher” program—enacted via ballot initiative in 2015—offers a potential solution. Starting in 2017, each registered voter in the city receives four publicly funded $25 vouchers per election cycle to contribute to candidates for city council and city attorney. In the words of Seattle-based community organization Washington CAN, “the idea is that people in our community, no matter how big their wallets are, should be able to contribute to campaigns, and that elected officials should be accountable to us—not just wealthy special interests that make big donations.”
While the enactment of the democracy voucher program represents an historic first step toward a more democratic campaign finance system, as political scientists we know that enacting a law is only the beginning. Prior research shows that reforms designed to make political participation easier are often not enough by themselves to engage people who rarely participate in politics. Scholars have suggested that legal changes must be paired with efforts by civic organizations to get the word out about new opportunities for participation.
In partnership with a coalition of advocacy organizations in Washington state (the Win/Win Network, Washington CAN, and Fuse Washington), we set out to test this hypothesis. Ahead of the 2017 election, the coalition undertook an outreach program involving door-to-door canvassing, text messages, e-mails, and digital advertisements to provide young voters and voters of color with information about the democracy vouchers. We randomly assigned voters to a treatment group which received these four modes of contact and a control group which did not. After the election, we collected publicly available data on voucher use and voter turnout to measure the impact of the outreach.
Our data show that people who were assigned to be contacted were 0.37 percentage points more likely to contribute a voucher to a candidate than those who were not. As the rate of voucher use in the control group was 1.26 percent, this effect represents a nearly 30 percent increase in voucher use. Consistent with prior research on efforts to get out the vote, we found that the outreach had the greatest impact on people who had voted regularly in the past. Contrary to our expectations, however, we did not find a stronger effect among members of groups within the Win/Win Network.
Among our entire sample, we did not find that assignment to outreach increased the likelihood of turning out to vote. However, among regular voters, our data show that those assigned to treatment were 3.86 percentage points more likely to vote, a substantial effect. As with our findings on voucher use, we did not find that members of groups within the coalition were more responsive to the outreach.
The outreach program in our study contributed to the democratization of Seattle’s campaign finance system. The city’s donor base more than tripled in 2017, and more than eight in ten voucher contributors had never donated to a campaign before. In addition, the donor base significantly diversified along the lines of age, race, class, and gender. While overall participation in the voucher program in 2017 was low—just 3.3 percent of Seattleites contributed a voucher—participation more than doubled from roughly 70,000 vouchers donated in 2017 to more than 147,000 in 2019.
At the same time, our findings suggest that transactional approaches to voter outreach will activate people who are already involved in politics, rather than bringing people off the sidelines of public life. Of course, it is worth noting that this study was conducted in a municipal election, which receives significantly less attention than national races. As studies indicate that voter outreach efforts tend to activate less frequent voters in higher-stakes elections, it seems plausible that if a similar voucher program were adopted for state or federal elections, an effort like the one in our study could substantially increase participation beyond the most politically engaged voters.
Even so, our findings suggest that efforts to engage infrequent participants in politics will need to go beyond traditional voter outreach tactics. Prior research documents how community organizations have fostered high levels of participation among members of marginalized groups. We applaud the city of Seattle for launching a program to provide grants to community organizations in underrepresented neighborhoods to increase involvement in the democracy voucher program.
Scholars have documented a decades-long decline in Americans’ involvement in civic organizations. Revitalizing these social and political homes may provide the key to unlocking the potential of Seattle’s democracy voucher program, and other reforms like it, to reshape representation in American democracy.