Democracy Decoded: Episode 6 Transcript

Giving a Voice to All Americans

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Simone Leeper: 

Why does American democracy look the way it does today, and how can we make it more responsive to the people it was formed to serve? I'm Simone Leeper and this is Democracy Decoded, a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable and inclusive democracy. 

Democracies work best when everyone can participate meaningfully and have their voices heard. However, right now, wealthy special interests and a small number of big donors have come to dominate much of the funding of political campaigns. Candidates rely on a handful of wealthy donors, while super PACs increasingly exert an outsized influence on our elections. As a result, elected officials are more responsive to large donors than to voters. How can we address this problem so that everyone can participate meaningfully? In this episode, our season finale, we're going to share with you one available solution that's gaining traction across the country, small-dollar public financing. Public financing is a system that provides candidates for office with public funds to support their election campaigns and empowers everyday voters to contribute impactfully. These programs help diminish political corruption, encourage more people to run for office and boost citizen engagement in the electoral process. Today, our episode will highlight two public financing success stories from opposite sides of the country. 

In part one, we'll take a trip to Seattle, Washington to learn about their Democracy Voucher Program, which went into effect in 2017. We'll hear about how in a 2019 election, candidates supported by small-dollar donors took on corporate back competitors and won their races. In part two, we're going to come back closer to where I'm recording in Washington, D.C. to learn about the city's Fair Elections Program, an innovative system of public campaign financing intended to address the District of Columbia's long track record of being overrun by wealthy, special interests. As we'll see, both cities took steps to make meaningful political participation in their elections more accessible to their citizens, and both provide a hopeful blueprint for a more inclusive democracy for the future. 

In 2015, voters in Seattle, Washington approved a program that helps amplify the voices of everyday people by giving residents small checks called Democracy Vouchers that can only be donated to political campaigns. But before we get into the program itself, I wanted a better understanding of what's wrong with the way most campaigns are financed today. Why should we look for solutions in the first place? To get a better handle on this, I spoke with Catie Kelley who helps advocate for state and local policy solutions at Campaign Legal Center. 

 

Catie Kelley: 

Most campaigns are funded through private contributions from individuals and PACs giving directly to candidates. And one of the issues with this system is that it gives those with more money a louder voice. And by and large, most Americans aren't contributing to campaigns, so most people are left out of this system and have no voice at all when it comes to contributing to candidates and funding our elections. If you look into the demographics of who is giving too, it is by and large wealthy, white men, and so the majority of population does not fall into those categories. And so you're having women, people of color and young people really underrepresented in who is giving to campaigns and who is funding our elections. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

I also spoke with Rene LeBeau, who's the Democracy Voucher Program manager for the city of Seattle. She explained what elections were like in her city before the program began. 

 

Rene LeBeau: 

For years, I worked in the elections community as an elections administrator, literally counted probably millions of ballots. And I can't tell you the number of times, friends, family, public – by the time that primary ballot rolled around and they looked at the candidates on that ballot and just perhaps didn't really know much about them, and so many chose not to participate. Then the general election rolls around and there's only two people left. And I hear people again say, “I don't even know who these people are. How did they get to be there?” And there's just this gap missing. And that's that campaigning moment. And that's who are the candidates talking to? Who are the candidates dialing into? Has the average person ever been asked to be part of that process? 

 

Simone Leeper: 

It's a recipe for lack of representation and corruption in government. And so in recent years, small-dollar public financing has increasingly gained interest across the country as a solution to bring more accountability to our political system. It's a way to make our elections more accessible and inclusive to everyday people of all backgrounds, not just for people or groups with lots of power and money already. 

 

Catie Kelley: 

Public financing really is trying to change the incentives, both for candidates and contributors. So you are encouraging candidates to ask for contributions from small dollar donors who aren't going to be able to max out and write a big check to candidates. And you are giving contributors an incentive to give to candidates. A lot of people don't give because they think what difference does my $5 make? What difference does my small contribution make? So you're providing some incentive for the contributor as well, to give to candidates and get involved. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

Seattle's Democracy Voucher Program is an example of a small-dollar public financing program that has actually been implemented and pretty successfully too. But how does it work? What does it look like? Where does the money for this program come from? Rene has the answers. 

 

Rene LeBeau: 

So in Seattle, we collect a very small property tax and use that money to help fund public financing. So what that means is we basically keep the money in a bank and we collect about $3 million a year. We set aside a fairly good amount of dollars for people to consider running for either our city mayor, our city attorney or any of our city council positions. We then distribute those funds in the form of Democracy Vouchers out to close to 500,000 residents. Each get four $25 Democracy Vouchers, and then they can use that to give to candidates who are running for local office and are choosing to use Democracy Vouchers to fund their campaign. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

Sending residents vouchers in order to give people the ability to have a meaningful voice in funding local elections, and directly encourage everyone to participate, is a pretty innovative idea. According to Rene, this idea took off through the energy of local citizens and ultimately, it was approved by Seattle voters directly. 

 

Rene LeBeau: 

So essentially the way this program came about was from the community. It was several local organizations looking at campaign finance reform – organizations who were looking at the bigger picture of a civic engagement, and to some degree that kind of joined forces and petitioned the residents to put on the ballot. And the program started up in 2016 and then our first year of using it for a local election was in 2017. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

This all sounded great in theory, but I did wonder how it worked out in practice. In addition to Rene, I also spoke with Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to learn about how the voucher program had changed the city's elections. 

 

Wayne Barnett: 

In previous years, we saw elections decided most of them by lopsided margins, 60/40, 70/30 – incumbents kind of walking to reelection without really having to face a vigorous campaign. Since the program has come into place, we've had far more competitive races. It has dramatically increased the number of people who are running, and also running viable campaigns. 

 

Rene LeBeau: 

And we ended up having a very good response first year out, lots of candidates wanting to use the program. So we hear from candidates, “I wouldn't have even considered running for office, had it not been for Democracy Vouchers.” So that right there is just really opening up to the pool of candidates. What we are finding is time and time again, in the three cycles that we have used Democracy Vouchers, 70%, 80% of those who make it to the general election ballot are using Democracy Vouchers. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

One of the strongest tests of the Democracy Voucher Program came in 2019 when a corporate backed coalition spent a combined $4 million on Seattle’s city council elections. That included $1.5 million from the tech giant Amazon. Yet the candidates who participated in the Democracy Voucher Program held their own. All but two candidates in the city council election participated in the program. While the corporations spent big, only one corporate backed candidate that ran in a competitive race came out on top. Those who weren't backed by the corporate coalition managed to run successful campaigns and get elected with the help from Democracy Vouchers and small-dollar donations. Catie and Wayne both concluded that the Democracy Voucher Program has fostered more engagement and more participation from everyday voters. 

 

Wayne Barnett: 

The public response thus far has been positive. We've seen anecdotally a lot of people who never before had the opportunity to contribute to a candidate are really excited about the opportunity to compare candidates and not wait until they've got their ballot to express their support for a candidate, but actually being able to contribute to a candidate in a way that they weren't able to before. 

 

Catie Kelley: 

Who is giving to campaigns in Seattle has really changed with the voucher system. Compared to cash donors, those contributing with vouchers are much less likely to be high income. They are much more likely to be young contributors, and they are much more likely to be people of color. Research has also found that individuals who contribute with a voucher are much more likely to vote. And so, we're seeing this kind of virtuous cycle of civic participation. People are more likely to give money in campaigns and then also to vote. 

 

Wayne Barnett: 

I think what's important about public financing in the long term is ideally we'll get an elected body that looks more like us. It'll be people who are sitting around their table trying to figure out how they're going to pay rent and keep a roof over their head and get their kids through school. And I that's the true promise of public financing, that people who will get elected won't be millionaires. They'll be people who have broad public support and are able to run a good campaign with public dollars. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

I'm pretty sold on the promise of public financing at this point. But in case you're still not convinced, we have one more example to look at in part two. Seattle is not the only city that has implemented a small-dollar public financing program. The very city where I'm recording from, Washington, D.C., has implemented one too for its local elections. For the second half of this episode, we're going to explore Washington D.C.'s Fair Elections Program. It has a slightly different setup than Seattle's Democracy Voucher Program, but it is still a small-dollar public financing system. It's been remarkably successful at removing barriers for everyday voters and candidates to participate in the political process. Catie Kelley of Campaign Legal Center will stay with us for this part of the episode. 

 

Catie Kelley: 

The DC Fair Elections Program was enacted by the council in 2018. It is a hybrid program. Candidates receive a lump sum grant of money when they qualify for the program, and then they can raise matching funds from D.C. residents. And those contributions from D.C. residents are matched at a rate of five-to-one. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

Unlike Seattle's program, which sends vouchers to residents, D.C.'s program is what's known as a small dollar matching system. D.C. residents can contribute a small donation amount, something they can afford — say $5 — and that donation is matched with public funds at a rate of five-to-one. So for every $1 donated by a resident, public funds chip in $5. This all adds up. For example, let's say you give a candidate $20. Under this program, that would be matched with $100 in public funds, turning your $20 contribution into a $120 contribution. If lots of everyday voters give small amounts, support from the community is amplified and candidates become less reliant on a small number of wealthy special interest donors to fund their campaigns. D.C.'s small dollar matching system requires voters who want to contribute to do so from their own private funds, as opposed to Seattle's program where $25 vouchers were sent out to residents, but a little goes a long way. And for the candidates, similar to Seattle, they can qualify for the program by raising a threshold amount of small-dollar contributions. 

 

Catie Kelley: 

This is a way for candidates to demonstrate that they have a threshold amount of popular support, that they are going to be good candidates supported by D.C. residents and that not just anybody can get public financing. They have to demonstrate some amount of support from the community. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

Christina Henderson was one such candidate who qualified for the D.C. Fair Elections Program and ultimately won her race to serve as an at-large council member. I spoke with her about her motivations for running. 

 

Christina Henderson: 

I was a first-time candidate running citywide here in D.C. And I was just really inspired by what I thought was the need for us to have more policymakers who were focused in on policies that were going to make D.C. more equitable and sustainable for us all. I grew up always with the principle that your zip code shouldn't determine your access to opportunity and success. And unfortunately, in D.C., I didn't see that happening. I saw that your zip code can determine everything from your life expectancy to your access to good schools, to your access to great healthcare. And I thought that we needed more elected officials who were fighting to change that each and every day. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

Running for city council can be a hugely expensive endeavor, and the D.C. Fair Elections Program was a major factor in now council member Henderson's decision to run. 

 

Christina Henderson: 

I was encouraged to run by my former boss who held the seat before I did. And my most immediate thought was, I'm not independently wealthy, and I don't have these, like, very broad networks of rich donors available to me to do the fundraising piece. I like to think of myself as politically savvy and fairly scrappy, but the idea of trying to raise $300,000, $400,000 to be able to compete in a citywide race was such a daunting idea. Getting into the Fair Elections Program and qualifying for the program, very soon I was like, “Oh, okay. I think I can do this. I can raise $400,000 as a first-time candidate, as a black woman, as someone who is not financially connected in this city in that way.” 

 

Simone Leeper: 

By making running for city council something more accessible to those without access to large sums of money, the Fair Elections Program also diversified the types of candidates who decided to run for office. 

 

Christina Henderson: 

We definitely had a lot more black and brown candidates than I had seen before running for citywide office in the district. Candidates who came from various backgrounds, not a lot of lawyers or folks who are coming from the corporate scene, but we had individuals who worked for nonprofits, and it really did diversify the pool of candidates that was able to be considered quote unquote, “viable,” frankly. A lots of times, in elections, people just determine viability based on your ability to fundraise, and the Fair Elections Program changes the calculations of what people consider as someone who has the ability to win or not. 

 

Dexter Williams: 

You know, for a very long time, our election system has not been fair at all. There was a financial barrier into running for office, and it shouldn't be. You shouldn't need to be connected to people who have a lot of money so that you can serve the community that you live in. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

That's Dexter Williams, who was a core member of the successful campaign to enact the D.C. Fair Elections Program. He explained more about how the program has not only made an impact on individual candidates’ decision to run for office, but it's also impacted city elections as a whole, helping to ensure that people living in the city's various wards feel fairly represented and have their needs addressed. 

 

Dexter Williams: 

What drew me to the program was I live in Ward 7 and at the time, our voices hadn't been included in the process at all. We have very little grocery stores. There's a food desert. It's just a community that has been struggling for a very, very long time. And as someone who was born and raised east of the river, in Ward 7 specifically, I thought it was important to be a part of the Fair Elections coalition, because our voices were not being heard in the election process. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

Dexter told me most donors were overwhelmingly white and didn't even live in the city, so a program like DC Fair Elections was needed to try to bring balance to the political process in D.C. Since contributions from D.C. residents are matched, that encourages candidates to fundraise from people who live in the city. 

 

Catie Kelley: 

The Fair Elections Program really diversified, who was contributing to campaigns in 2020. The number of small dollar donors increased across D.C., with the biggest increase in low-income zip codes. If you look at a map of D.C., it's those contributors in Wards 7 and 8, who really had a much higher rate of participations than they did in previous election cycles. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

So Fair Elections increased and broadened voter participation across the city, but how did it affect the way candidates ran their campaigns? For the city council race in particular, no contributor could give more than a $100. This had a huge impact on the way the candidates engaged with voters. I'll let council member Henderson explain. 

 

Christina Henderson: 

I didn't feel compelled to spend more time with like the business community or with more wealthy donors than perhaps I would with anyone else. But also, in those last few weeks of the campaign, I was not worried about fundraising. I literally was worried about voter contact. How can I talk to people? How can I get them to support? How can I get them to sign up to volunteer? I just loved the way that it enabled me to focus more on voters and my message as opposed to needing to stress over raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

Okay, so it seems like the Fair Elections Program clearly has a lot of benefits, but it's not mandatory for people to use it. So what happens when Fair Elections candidates come up against those who chose not to use the program? Are they really able to compete? 

 

Christina Henderson: 

Since this was D.C.'s first cycle with the Fair Elections Program, this was a bit of an experiment. Can someone win citywide in the nation's capital in a highly competitive race? There were 23 other people on the ballot for my particular race and not all of the candidates were doing Fair Elections. Some of them were fundraising in the traditional fashion. Whereas they can take $1,000 or $1,500 checks, I wasn't able to do that. But we were able to compete, and not only able to compete, I was able to return resources back to the D.C. Treasury once my campaign was done and have been successful in winning at the end. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

That's pretty impressive. It seems like this program really benefits everyone. So if you're as fired up as I am about public financing and wondering how you can make it happen in your city or state, Catie and Dexter have some ideas. 

 

Catie Kelley: 

There are many different ways to do this, but what is absolutely essential is strong support from the community, pressure on public officials to go ahead and move forward with a different system, and the creativity and political will to envision a different way for campaigns to be funded. 

 

Dexter Williams: 

The most challenging part about it was convincing people that Fair Elections was a good use of taxpayer dollars. And we would get questions, why should taxpayers fund the political aspirations of an individual? And it was a fair question and we had to think about it. But ultimately, we said, “Look, we're investing in other areas like education and transportation and healthcare, and public financing is not an investment in someone's politic aspirations. It really is an investment in the political process, which impacts all the issues that we care about.” And it really does, from education, from our roads. Who gets elected into office and how they get elected into office is just as important as the policies that elected officials are pushing and implementing. 

 

Simone Leeper: 

More than 30 states and localities have established public financing systems because of its ability to help fight political corruption. Ultimately, small dollar public financing is a solution that aims to erase barriers to participation in our collective self government. It's about amplifying the voices of everyday people and ensuring our voices are heard, and it gives community members a pathway to run for office to represent their own neighborhoods. And with those final thoughts, we're now at the end of our six episode season on campaign finance. I hope you've enjoyed going on this journey with me and come away with a little more knowledge about how we can build a stronger, more transparent, accountable and inclusive democracy. 

Special thanks to Catie Kelley, Rene LeBeau, Wayne Barnett, Christina Henderson and Dexter Williams for appearing in this episode. You can find additional background information on the topics discussed in the show notes, along with the full transcript of the show. This podcast was produced and written by Casey Atkins and Brendan Quinn, with additional script writing by Bryan Dewan. It was edited by Parker Podcasting and narrated by me, Simone Leeper. 

Democracy Decoded is a production of Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, which advances democracy through law at the federal, state and local levels, fighting for every American's right to responsive government and a fair opportunity to participate in and affect the democratic process. You can visit us on the web at campaignlegalcenter.org.