In California Cities, a New Frontier for Public Financing of Elections

Oakland voters will decide whether to start a “democracy voucher” program for residents to donate to candidates of their choosing, following in Seattle’s footsteps.

Spenser Mestel   |    July 13, 2022

Oakland City Hall at night. (Greg Linhares/ City of Oakland)

In 2017, Seattle implemented a democratic reform that accomplished the seemingly impossible, diversifying and growing the pool of people giving money to political campaigns, and making city races more competitive in the process.

Every local election cycle, Seattle gives each eligible resident four $25 “democracy vouchers” to donate to candidates of their choosing. To opt into the program and receive these vouchers, candidates must agree to certain conditions, like limiting their spending and participating in debates—and most do. 

The program has attracted glowing national attention, but so far no city has capitalized on Seattle’s success to implement its own version. The tide now may be turning as advocates for campaign finance reform hope to bring democracy vouchers to California, with Oakland leading the way. 

On Monday night, the Oakland City Council unanimously voted to place a democracy vouchers referendum on the city’s November ballot, with all six council members present voting aye.

If Oakland voters approve the measure, a new Democracy Dollars program would provide four $25 vouchers for every Oakland voter to donate to eligible city and school board candidates starting in 2024. The referendum on the November ballot also includes other provisions meant to improve campaign finance in the city, including lower campaign contribution limits and new donor disclosure requirements 

The measure is championed by a broad coalition of voting rights groups, including ​​the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, League of Women Voters Oakland, and California Common Cause, as well as community-led organizations that also advocate for immigrant rights, housing development, and preschool education. 

The coalition is making the case that creating a Democracy Dollars program would engage more voters, encourage a more diverse set of candidates, make political giving more transparent, redistribute power to poorer and less white areas, and combat the power of special interests. 

“It gives political giving power to families and neighborhoods that would otherwise have zero disposable income to donate to politicians,” Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause, told Bolts.  

At a press conference before the council’s vote, Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas echoed that call. “This is a transformative opportunity because it empowers our residents who historically have not participated in elections to select and support candidates who they feel best represent and meet their needs.” 

Reformers in other California cities, especially Los Angeles and San Diego, are closely watching Oakland’s process and hope to follow suit in upcoming years. 

“You see people scrabbling and fighting for every bit of improvement because they want to make a stronger democracy,” said Amy Tobia, a steering committee member of the Voter’s Voice coalition, which is leading the campaign to adopt democracy vouchers in San Diego. 

An irony of American elections is that, since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, we can make almost limitless political donations, but few of us give at all. Just 1.4 percent of the U.S. population contributed more than $200 to federal candidates, PACs, parties, or outside groups in the 2019-2020 cycle. It’s the same story in local politics. In the cycle before Seattle implemented democracy vouchers, the top 4 percent of political donors donated as much as the bottom 64 percent. Just 391 people—less than 1 percent of adults in the city— accounted for more than quarter of all electoral giving. 

In Oakland, too, the wealthy dominate political giving. Small donors, those giving less than $100, made up just 6 percent of all candidate funding, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan organization that tracks the influence of money in politics. MapLight’s analysis also stresses that the city’s three majority-white zip codes, which house a fifth of the city’s population, were responsible for 45 percent of the contributions made by Oakland residents in the 2020 cycle. Oakland advocates are also alarmed by the increasing amount of money pouring in from outside the city—$1.1 million in 2020, 36 percent of money given to candidates, compared to $231,000 in 2014, 22 percent of the total donations. 

“We have hyper concentrated political giving in the hands of a tiny and totally non-representative slice of Oakland,” says Stein. “The majority of Oakland, which is working class and communities of color, has virtually no political giving power—and that changes who can run for and win, and it changes what ideas are taken seriously.”

To combat the role of private money in elections, fourteen states have implemented one of two public financing programs. The first requires candidates to collect small contributions from a certain number of donors to demonstrate that they have public support. In exchange, they get money from the state. In the second, the government matches private campaign donations, and sometimes increases them by a certain multiplier. In Los Angeles, it’s up to six. In New York City, it’s up to eight. In Maryland, it depends on the size of contribution, with smaller donations getting more of a boost.

Tom Latkowski, cofounder of LA for Democracy Vouchers, a Los Angeles-based organization, and the author of a book on the subject, argues that these programs are ineffective. “Fundamentally, what matching funds do is they move the center of power from the super rich, who can give the maximum contribution limit, to just the very rich,” he told Bolts. “The matching funds do nothing to help the vast majority of Angelenos who aren’t donating at all.” 

Latkowski thinks democracy vouchers are a stronger solution to the problem of concentrated giving because they redistribute political power even to those who don’t have disposable income.  

Every resident is a potential donor under the democracy voucher system. In Seattle, political hopefuls have expanded well beyond traditional fundraising avenues, collecting vouchers at house parties, outside supermarkets, and in housing complexes for low-income seniors. The results have dramatically stretched the boundaries of political donations. 

Since Seattle’s program was implemented, the number of donors per race has gone up by 350 percent, and candidates reported hundreds of thousands more in small donations of under $200, reducing their reliance on a small batch of wealthy donors, according to a study conducted by Alan Griffith, a scholar at the University of Washington. 

The voucher users were also more likely to be young and lower-income contributors compared to cash donors, according to a 2020 study conducted by researchers at Stony Brook and Georgetown Universities, and many of them were new to political contributions. Oakland activists are hoping they can similarly engage residents who are currently disengaged from the process; too many people are “usually pushed to the side,” said liz suk, executive director of Oakland Rising, a non-profit collaborative that’s advocated for the democracy vouchers.

Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, the public agency that oversees the city’s voucher program, says voucher use is on the rise and being used by an increasingly diverse pool of residents in the city as people become more familiar with it. Barnett also says the system is fostering a more competitive political environment. “We just had a very contentious selection season, and we didn’t have that before,” he told Bolts

Since 2015, the number of city candidates in Seattle has nearly doubled. In addition, the margins of victory have been lower, and turnout has increased. Proponents of the vouchers program attribute these shifts to the reform, pointing out that it allows candidates without personal wealth or access to affluent donors to fundraise enough to run viable campaigns and to interest more voters.

An example is Teresa Mosqueda, a former labor organizer who ran for council in 2017 on a platform of affordable housing. She launched her campaign while working full time, renting a one-bedroom apartment, and still paying off student loans. 

She said the democracy vouchers program, and the knowledge it gave her that she would have access to small donor contributions, pushed her to run. “That really was a green light saying go,” she told Vox in 2018. “If I was out door-belling in the evening for three hours or so, I could walk away with $500, $600, even $700 in vouchers on my own.” In total, Mosqueda received nearly $300,000 from democracy vouchers.

Mosqueda won her race in 2017 and ran for another term in 2021. She opted into the democracy voucher program again, collected over 10,000 vouchers, worth more than $250,000, and won re-election. 

Seattle’s current mayor, city attorney, and seven of the nine city councilors used the program for either their latest primary, general election, or both. 

In Oakland, activists told Bolts, the push for democracy vouchers picked up in part out of frustration over recent school board races. In 2016, billionaire Michael Bloomberg gave $300,000 to the political action committee sponsored by an Oakland-based nonprofit that supports charter schools. That group then spent $153,000 in support of a pro-charter candidate, who won his race. Two years later, the committee spent a similar sum, and again its candidate won. And in 2020, pro-charter groups poured more than $1 million into the Oakland School Board Director election. They won three of the four races. 

More broadly, during the last four elections in Oakland, 77 percent of the contested races were won by the candidate who raised the most, according to MapLight. 

A few years ago, groups like Common Cause California and the League of Women Voters Oakland began discussing the idea of democracy dollars, but the proponents aren’t just “the usual suspects on money in politics,” says Stein. “We are working together with organizations that represent a diverse set of Oakland communities that are closer to the issues that these communities are facing,” like the Asian Law Caucus, Oakland Rising, and the ACLU. 

That group gained allies like Dan Kalb, a city councilmember, and Nikki Fortunato Bas, the City Council President, who pushed for the vote this week. 

“It’s really only a few million dollars a year to be able to highlight and expand our democratic values of our democratic system for local elections,” said Kalb during a press conference before the vote. “And I think that’s a small price to pay.” 

Now that the council has placed the issue on the ballot, proponents must educate and convince voters. “It takes some time to explain the idea,” says Stein. “But once it’s explained, people have a universally positive reaction to it.” 

The Oakland measure is different from Seattle’s in several ways. For one, it applies to more offices, including school board races, a choice by local advocates who designed the measure that reflects the city’s recent political history. 

Under the legislation, vouchers would automatically be mailed to registered voters in Oakland, and anyone over 18 who’s been a resident in the city for 30 days or more could request them.  

Oakland’s bill would also use a different funding source. Seattle’s program cost nearly $5.5 million over 2019-2020, money that is coming from a property tax that voters approved alongside the democracy voucher program in 2015. For a $450,000 property, it costs about $9 per year. In Oakland, the cost of $2 million a year will be funded from the general fund. suk says advocates pushed for this to not “burden our homeowners.”

Democracy vouchers have come with their pushback, controversy, and limitations. The Stranger, a Seattle publication, recently reported on a canvasser who was accused of deceptively marketing blank vouchers. Instead of explaining that signing the paper would give money to a candidate, he portrayed it as a way to “help the homeless.” 

Barnett says the commission is considering banning for-profit voucher gatherers. For residents who may be worried about fraud, the Seattle program offers a searchable database of all the democracy vouchers redeemed by candidates. 

California advocates hope that Oakland’s vote snowballs across the rest of the state. Organizers are now debating how they want to get the measure on the ballot for voter approval in Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego, Fresno, and Orange County by 2024. Collecting signatures is time- and labor-intensive, but going through the city council can be politically risky, says Tobia, the San Diego advocate.

“You’re asking the people for whom the current system has worked very well to make it more accessible to others, and that’s a big ask,” she says. 

Still, advocates think that democracy vouchers could be similar to another reform that started slowly at the local level and then accelerated. “I see democracy vouchers as maybe 10 or 15 years behind ranked choice voting,” said Latkowski, in reference to a change in election procedures that just in recent years has swept Alaska, Maine, Utah, and New York City.