Oakland Embraces Democracy Dollars for More Responsive Government

The skyline of the city of Oakland on a sunny day
Aerial view of Lake Merritt and downtown Oakland, CA on a sunny day. Photo by Diane Bentley Raymond

Oakland voters have taken a groundbreaking step to overhaul the way their city runs its elections and ensure a more responsive and accountable government. By passing Measure W, Oakland became the second city in the nation to enact a voucher-based public financing program that directly empowers its residents to engage in the political process.

This new “Democracy Dollars” program is a result of a city ballot measure campaign, Fair Elections Oakland, supported by a broad coalition of stakeholders and overwhelmingly approved by Oakland voters.

By enacting the Democracy Dollars program, Oakland is enhancing the ability of city residents to meaningfully participate in municipal election campaigns by providing financial support to their preferred candidates for elected office. The Democracy Dollars program also incentivizes candidates to engage with everyday Oaklanders, ensuring that the voices of Oakland residents are heard and creating a more representative democracy.

 Under Oakland's new program, each eligible resident will receive four Democracy Dollars vouchers worth the equivalent of $25 each election cycle. Residents can donate their Democracy Dollars to qualified city candidates of their choice. A candidate qualifies to participate in the program by collecting a minimum number of qualifying small-dollar contributions from eligible Oakland residents and agreeing to additional rules as a condition of receiving public funds.

Voucher-based programs like Democracy Dollars change the way campaigns are funded, shifting from a system dominated by private financing, where candidates rely on large contributions from a small group of wealthy contributors, to a system that enables all eligible residents to meaningfully contribute to support the financing of their preferred candidates.

The Democracy Dollars program will provide an important alternative to the current campaign finance realities in Oakland. A report from MapLight, a nonpartisan nonprofit that develops data systems to improve democracy and advance policies in the public interest, revealed that campaign contributions in recent Oakland elections came disproportionately from the city’s richest and whitest neighborhoods; less affluent and more diverse neighborhoods were underrepresented in campaign contributions.

Oakland’s Democracy Dollars program builds on the success of Seattle’s pioneering Democracy Voucher program, which has successfully increased political participation. In Seattle’s 2021 elections, more than 48,000 eligible residents contributed to candidates using vouchers, representing a five-fold increase from the number of cash contributors who gave to Seattle campaigns before the enactment of the program.

Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program has also diversified Seattle’s donor pool over the years it has been in place. In contrast to private contributors, who skew whiter and wealthier than the Seattle electorate, the racial diversity of voucher users in Seattle’s most recent elections more closely resembles that of active voters in the city. Voucher users are more socioeconomically representative of Seattle’s electorate than cash contributors, and voucher donors were more likely than cash contributors to reside in low-income neighborhoods. Participation in the Democracy Voucher program has also increased across all racial groups in the most recent elections, with the largest gains among people of color.

Importantly, a study of the Seattle program showed that residents who gave their vouchers to candidates were substantially more likely to vote. Among residents who voted in less than half of the prior elections for which they were eligible, voucher donors were four times more likely to vote than city residents who did not contribute their vouchers.

Moreover, public financing systems play a critical role in reducing barriers to entry for candidates from underrepresented groups or who lack access to deep-pocketed networks to run for office. By enabling candidates from all backgrounds to run competitive campaigns built on the support of their constituents, public financing can help create a government that works for everyone, not just wealthy special interests.

Oaklanders should be applauded for taking the bold step to increase accountability in their government and participation in the political process by enacting the innovative Democracy Dollars program. Cities and states across the country should implement similar programs to amplify the voices of ordinary Americans at all levels of our democracy.

Campaign Legal Center submitted testimony to the Oakland City Council supporting the placement of the Fair Elections Act on the ballot in Oakland, which you can read here. To learn more about programs like Oakland’s Democracy Dollars and other forms of public financing, see our DemocracyU toolkit on the public financing of elections

Aaron is a Senior Legal Counsel on CLC's Campaign Finance team.