Vouchers for Voters? It's Worth a Try

There's real money in voting.

Photographer: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

A day after campaign-finance crusader Larry Lessig dropped his bizarre bid for the presidency, Seattle became the first city in the country to adopt a law that he and other reformers have been seeking for years: publicly funded vouchers for political candidates. Seattle's experiment will provide a good test of whether it's viable. The answer is far from clear.

QuickTake U.S. Campaign Finance

Under Seattle's law, which voters adopted in a referendum, the city will mail four $25 vouchers to each voter, who can direct them to any candidate running for local office, including mayor and city council. The catch is: To accept the vouchers, candidates must agree to limit their campaign spending.

Spending limits may do candidates and voters more harm than good -- and if the proliferation of super-PACs reaches the local level, the limits will be rendered moot anyway. Nevertheless, the goals of the new law are worthy: helping those with limited access to money mount viable campaigns, reducing the power of special interests and the amount of time candidates must spend fundraising, and encouraging more citizen participation in the democratic process.

Other cities have adopted campaign-financing programs that match private contributions with public dollars. In New York City, for instance, a $175 contribution to a candidate nets that candidate $1,050 in public money. But only a tiny percentage of citizens make donations. In Seattle, every voter will be able to make donations -- and that could prove problematic.

To pay for the vouchers, voters passed a property tax increase that will generate about $6 million for each city election. That's significant, but only a fraction of the $41 million that would be necessary if every voter were to ask for vouchers. It's odd, to say the least, that a program designed to increase public participation in campaigns is counting on low participation.

Corruption could also sour voters on the idea. Campaigns will inevitably try to game the system. Even the mailing of vouchers could be problematic: voter registration rolls are notoriously out of date. The agency responsible for enforcing the new law will need to be vigilant about fraud and abuse.

Seattle residents who voiced these concerns were right to do so, and the program will undoubtedly need refinement after the first election. But given the huge costs that special interests routinely impose on the public through their campaign contributions, voters are understandably seeking more power.

Whether the vouchers will produce the changes in campaigns and government that supporters hope for is impossible to know. But it's worth finding out.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.