Running a campaign of any kind takes a massive amount of resources. Engaging with voters in federal campaigns takes thousands of employees across the country. The average voter doesn’t pay as much attention to local elections and as such they get less media coverage. Beyond that, advertisements need to be bought and events with the candidate need to be arranged. Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, politicians have been increasingly funding campaigns on money raised from interest groups and corporations. Wealthy donors who could have been limited to $5,200 per candidate per election cycle can now funnel massive donations to candidates through interest groups.
Wealthy donors have been increasing their hold over elected officials, and reform is necessary. As seen in Seattle, a voucher program that finances campaigns through public funds would be beneficial to local, state, and federal elections.
Politicians have an incentive to court high-value donors—the types of people who can help form super PACs to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even worse, politicians can be sponsored by corporations or interest groups, as we saw in Seattle’s 2019 city council elections. According to the Washington Post, Amazon poured upwards of a million dollars into various candidates’ campaigns in order to create a city council that is more sympathetic to Amazon and other large corporations. Politicians from both parties have an unspoken agreement among interest groups; there is a clear exchange of campaign contributions and policy decisions. The main consequence of such a system is a democracy that affords more of a voice to those with more money. People who don’t have the means to donate to campaigns and form interest groups are represented less.
There are a few potential solutions to problems like this. A common suggestion among progressive politicians is to eliminate private funding of campaigns. This is an official policy of former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign. But this doesn’t exactly solve the problem. The wealthy will always have the means to influence politics, whether it is directly through campaign contributions or outright corruption, or indirectly through fake corporate-sponsored grassroots movements that run misleading advertisements and rent out billboards. Also, eliminating the private funding of campaigns doesn’t incentivize the majority of America, who for so long have not been given a fair voice in politics, to engage with the system. The solution should not be about restricting the wealthy. We should work to give agency to everyone else.
A newer solution that is currently being tested in Seattle is Democracy Vouchers. Passed through a 2015 referendum, each voter is entitled to four $25 vouchers that they can give to any candidate running for municipal office. This system gives the Americans who could not otherwise afford to donate to campaigns the capital to do so. In turn, politicians have a greater incentive to engage with the majority instead of a concentrated group of wealthy people. Under this system, there has been a clear change in the sway of corporations in Seattle. Massive spending by one wealthy minority can be countered by a large number of voters using their vouchers. In the Seattle city council elections, this program helped Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant defeat Amazon-backed Egon Orion in a city council campaign, despite Orion receiving $617,592 in PAC money. Vouchers provide an opportunity for popular candidates to remain afloat despite big money trying to drown them out.
While voucher programs are a new idea, they seem to work. Politicians can fund campaigns without having to rely on wealthy interest groups, most of which have goals that do not align with the common good. Voters are able to engage more with candidates and their campaigns, and a lack of resources is no longer an issue. More places, Knox County included, should consider adopting programs similar to Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers. It would require raising a significant sum of money—Seattle voted in a property tax of $3 million a year—but the benefits seem to outweigh that. The program would be significantly cheaper in Knox County due to its smaller population and enable people who might not have the financial means to engage in campaigns and elections to do so. At Kenyon, both as residents of Knox County and as students of the liberal arts, we have an obligation to support our surrounding community. Programs like election vouchers enable voters, and we should do everything we can to bring them to fruition.