Far from the dysfunctional tumult in Congress, Seattle has found two keys toward fixing problems that plague our democracy. The country should pay attention.
America’s system for funding election campaigns is broken. Most Americans understand (and research confirms) that politicians pay more attention to campaign contributors than constituents. The donor class is wealthier, older, and whiter than the general public, and has very different opinions—especially on economic issues. It usually gets its way in Congress, in states, and in city after city.
But Seattle has enacted two critical measures that should serve as national models for a path forward. They haven’t cured all the ills of big money in politics; Supreme Court decisions, like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, prevent complete solutions for now. But Seattle’s twin reforms have transformed its elections, and could do so elsewhere.
First, Seattle empowered ordinary people. In 2015, voters approved a ballot initiative creating the first-in-the-nation Democracy Voucher Program. Every adult citizen in Seattle receives $100 in vouchers that they can sign over, as campaign contributions, to candidates for city office.
This tackles a longstanding problem. Typically, most working people don’t have $25, let alone $100, to give to political candidates. So candidates spend more time talking to lawyers, real estate developers, and executives than to cashiers, waiters, or janitors. In Seattle, for example, most political contributors have historically lived in wealthy white neighborhoods with water or mountain views—if they lived in the city at all.
With democracy vouchers, candidates can build competitive campaigns without relying on rich donors. They can raise money from lower-income people who actually live in the jurisdiction, and they can afford to take positions that aren’t popular at wine-and-cheese parties. The vouchers program hasn’t yet achieved all its goals—the city is still working on increasing participation—but it’s enabled a diverse mix of candidates to run for office by appealing to ordinary people.
Seattle’s second bold reform is the Clean Campaigns Act. This targets corporate political spending by companies with substantial foreign ownership. As Seattleites have learned, even with democracy vouchers, it’s harder to practice self-government when multinational corporations decide to target local elections. In fact, while the Clean Campaigns Act was itself pending before the city council, Amazon spent $1.5 million on a failed attempt to replace the council with candidates that company management preferred.
Here’s the problem. Many major corporations—even companies with shiny corporate headquarters in American cities—are increasingly owned by foreign investors. Overall, foreign entities own 40% of U.S. corporate stock. That may benefit our economy, but it creates problems for our democracy. Corporate executives generally make decisions in their investors’ interests. As ExxonMobil’s CEO once said, “I’m not a U.S. company and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.”
Most people agree: foreign entities shouldn’t be able to influence our elections, directly or indirectly. Polling shows that 73% of Americans—including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans—support limiting political spending by companies with any foreign ownership. The issue isn’t xenophobia; it’s protecting democratic self-government. And it’s why Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, and other experts support laws like Seattle’s Clean Campaigns Act. That law bans corporations with significant foreign ownership (based on thresholds drawn from corporate governance research) from spending company money to influence elections.
This year, Seattle is holding its first election under the Clean Campaigns Act, and without the threat of massive campaign spending by multinational corporations. It turns out that Seattleites can run competitive elections without money from companies beholden to investors in Saudi Arabia, Europe, and around the world.
Cities and states are the laboratories of democracy. Seattle’s twin campaign finance reforms—democracy vouchers, and a ban on political spending by foreign-influenced corporations—have proven their merit. The country should learn from Seattle’s success.