Democracy Dollars: How Does It Work?

Wondering what a Democracy Dollars system would look like, and how it would change elections in Evanston? The best place to look for answers is Seattle, Washington, which implemented a voucher system in their 2017 municipal elections. Under the program, every registered voter in Seattle received four $25 vouchers which they could give to any eligible candidate. Eligible candidates must have already gathered $10 donations from 400 Seattle voters and agreed to non-voucher donations limits of $250 for city council and $500 for the mayoral race. Candidates participating in the program also agreed to limit their campaign spending to $75,000 in the primary and another $75,000 in the general election. In Evanston, the program could look very similar, but the smaller scale would make it even cheaper and easier to implement.

This Democracy Dollars system would likely have four important effects for Evanston elections: a diversified donor pool, a more accessible ballot, cheaper elections, and more responsive elected officials. Today, Seattle’s third round of elections under their new voucher system are taking place, and these four benefits have already begun to manifest.

First, Democracy Dollars would help diversify the donor pool in Evanston municipal elections. In Seattle, the number of local donors tripled in 2017, the first election year where the voucher system was implemented. Then, in the 2019 election cycle, local donors increased again, this time doubling 2017 numbers. This means that in just two election cycles, the voucher system in Seattle increased the number of local donors sixfold. Additionally, the percentage of donations coming from underrepresented groups increased:

– Donations coming from those under the age of 29 grew from 7% to 11%.

– The percentage of donations coming from African American, Hispanic, and Asian
residents increased.

– Most significantly, the share of donations coming from those who make under
$75k/year rose by 12%, while the share of donations coming from those making over
$100k/year dropped by 10%.

In other words, a voucher system greatly increases the number of donations coming from local, small-money donors, and amplifies the voices of underrepresented groups.

Another potential benefit of a Democracy Dollars program is a more accessible ballot, meaning any Evanston resident can feasibly run for office. In Seattle, Teresa Mosqueda, a 37-year-old with student loan debt and a one-bedroom apartment, said the city’s voucher program allowed her to run for office while continuing to work her full time job. Two-thirds of the money she raised during her campaign came from vouchers, and she ultimately won a seat on the Seattle City Council. In Evanston, on the other hand, the two mayors before current mayor Daniel Biss were both millionaires. Under a Democracy Dollars program, ordinary community members would be able to more easily raise money and pose real challenges to millionaires and professional politicians in local elections.

A Democracy Dollars system would also result in cheaper elections for Evanston. In the 2017 mayoral race, Mr. Stephen Hagerty spent $150,000 in his narrow win, and Mr. Biss raised over $125,000 in his 2019 victory. If Evanston’s Democracy Dollars program instituted a spending limit of $75k for participating candidates (half of Seattle’s $150k spending limit), elections would become significantly cheaper. And the spending limit could be even lower. In local elections, ideas and values should take the spotlight, and hard-earned money should stay in the pockets of residents.

Finally, Democracy Dollars has the potential to create a more responsive city council and mayor. When local elections are funded by small-money donors and ordinary community members can mount substantial campaigns, elected officials are forced to prioritize the needs of the community. The influence of big-money donors who candidates once needed to fund their campaigns will shrink, and corporate interests will no longer have the first seats at the table.

Today, as Seattle conducts their third election since the implementation of their Democracy Vouchers, the efficacy of the program has been well demonstrated. Democracy Dollars Evanston has the potential to amplify the voices of local and underrepresented donors, allow ordinary community members to mount effective campaigns for office, decrease the cost of elections, and result in more responsive elected officials. In other words, Democracy Dollars represents the hope for a more democratic, transparent, representative, and fair Evanston.