SEATTLE >> Many voters don't have the money to donate to political candidates or don't care enough to bother. But what if the government gave them $100 to dole out as they saw fit?
That's the experiment underway in Seattle after voters this month adopted the nation's first voucher system for campaign contributions. The idea is to get those who don't normally donate more involved in politics as a way to counteract the influence of big corporate donors and wealthy individuals.
"We're very eager to see how it works," said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C. "One of the major problems people have with the political system is that it's financially controlled by too few people. Nothing's going to stop wealthy individuals from making independent expenditures, but those will be less powerful if more people are engaged."
The U.S. Supreme Court has chipped away at restrictions on political donations, including in the 2010 Citizens United case, which allowed unfettered independent spending by corporations and unions.
Critics of the court's decision see local efforts to strengthen the public financing of campaigns as a step toward blunting the effect of such rulings. Voters in Maine this month passed a measure to strengthen their 1996 campaign finance law by making additional public money available to candidates running for governor and the Legislature.
Seattle's voters decided to tax themselves $3 million a year — $6 million for each two-year election cycle — in exchange for four $25 vouchers that they can sign over to candidates for mayor, city council or city attorney, beginning with the council and attorney elections in 2017 and the mayor's race in 2021.