How Would A Democracy Dollars Program Address Equity?

Running for office will cost money no matter what – but where that money comes from really matters. The question of who finances a campaign has huge implications for whose interests are prioritized once the candidate is elected. Under our current campaign finance laws, we face gaping inequities in campaign contributions every election cycle, where voters who are wealthy, white, and male are vastly overrepresented in the donor pool. Evanston, Illinois has the opportunity to pursue bold reform to this broken system through a Democracy Dollars voucher program that would pull more people into the funding conversation.

Campaign donations are one of the biggest avenues for political participation outside of casting a ballot, but right now it is an avenue limited to those with disposable income – leaving political decision making in the hands of the privileged. Even small-dollar donations require a financial flexibility that many cannot afford. Under a Democracy Dollars program, however, people would have the opportunity to contribute to campaigns without spending their own money; every eligible resident would receive a set of coupons (four $25 vouchers, for example) that they would be able to give to the candidate or candidates of their choice. This program would help level the field for political participation and bring about the more equitable representation we need.

Seattle is the pioneer of this style of campaign finance reform, and they have seen their program draw in more participants each election. Under their new system in 2017, 84% of their total donor pool were new donors (who had not contributed in the 2013 or 2015 cycles), and this new pool of donors was more representative of the overall electorate than past elections. Before the voucher program went into place, only 1.3% of Seattle residents donated to city elections; by the 2019 election, that percentage had more than quadrupled to 8% using either a voucher or cash donation.

If Evanston were to adopt a similar model to Seattle’s, the city would quickly become a leader in the fight for fairer campaigns. Candidates who opt into the Democracy Dollars program would be subject to more stricter financing restrictions, such as spending limits and disclosure requirements, so Evanston could rein in the role that money plays in campaigns. This would allow candidates to be successful by running their campaigns with a focus on equity. They can concentrate their efforts on the residents who would otherwise be unable to donate; by reaching out to marginalized groups historically underserved in campaigning, more voices and perspectives will be heard.

With this opportunity comes the immense responsibility of needing to get it right. Cities in Illinois and across the country hoping to pursue similar reforms will look to Evanston as a model, so it is imperative that the city implements the program carefully to prevent administrative hang-ups that would undermine faith in the system. There must be a robust public education component put into place so that residents feel confident making use of their Democracy Dollar coupons. And even if it were implemented perfectly, this program will not resolve the systemic issues in how campaigns are run today.

But ultimately, we can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good; we need to get started if we ever want to see progress toward equity in our campaigns. This proposal for Democracy Dollars is one way that Evanston city government can help us get there.