By Charlotte Hill (MPP ‘17)
It seems poetic that the antithesis of Washington, DC’s political corruption and ineptitude can be found in Washington State, 2,493 miles away.
Maybe the physical distance between the two jurisdictions helps Washington State’s legislators resist politics as usual. Maybe the shared name imbues them with an outsize sense of responsibility over the nation’s political system — a desire to fix our broken democracy and get government right.
Whatever the reason, Washington State’s commitment to political reform is a welcome change. While clouds of treason and scandal hover ominously over our nation’s capital, America’s 42nd state embraces one democratic reform after another, painting an alluring picture of what democracy might look like under a better set of political institutions.
I first started paying attention to Washington State politics back in 2015. Halfway through the MPP program at the Goldman School, I was intent upon applying the program’s famous “Eightfold Path”—a set of eight policy analysis steps—to my pet issue of a broken campaign finance system. Clearly, privately funded elections provided the wealthy with disproportionate political influence, and I was eager to identify ways to correct this imbalance. Step 3 of the Eightfold Path, “construct the alternatives,” urged burgeoning policy analysts like myself to develop a set of policy options that could, in theory, address the problem we had set out to solve—yet on the issue of campaign finance, innovative policy solutions seemed few and far between.
Enter Washington’s biggest city, Seattle—home to the Space Needle, Amazon, and (my favorite) Grey’s Anatomy. In 2017, Seattle implemented a ballot initiative that transforms how local political candidates raise their campaign money.
Here’s how it works. In an election year, every Seattle resident who is eligible to vote gets $100 in the mail in the form of “democracy vouchers.” They can then donate those vouchers to people running for office — but only if those candidates agree to only take small donations.
It’s the proverbial killing of two birds with one stone: politicians have an incentive to court the donations of regular people, not rich donors and big businesses, and regular people can finance the campaigns of candidates they support without breaking the bank.
Initial data from Seattle’s democracy voucher program is very promising. In 2017, vouchers made it easier for poor and middle-class residents to donate to campaigns; according to one early analysis, “Small donations of $250 or less and Democracy Voucher donors made up 87 percent of the contributions to candidates running in the races eligible for Democracy Vouchers this year,” up from “just 48 percent of the money backing candidates for city council and city attorney in the 2013 elections.”
18,000 Seattle residents participated in the voucher program, out of 25,000 total donors — three times the donor base in 2013. Voucher donors were disproportionately younger, female, and more likely to come from low-income communities and communities of color. And all three winning candidates, including two incumbents, raised the majority of their campaign funds through vouchers, rather than sticking with the old fundraising system.
Once I learned about the voucher program, I started noticing other signs of Washington’s commitment to democratic reform. The state holds its elections entirely by mail, saving precious time for voters and money for the state. Automatic and same-day voter registration and, two policies just passed this spring, will eliminate unnecessary barriers for people who want to exercise their right to vote. A recently signed bill requiring greater disclosure of political advertising will help Washingtonians learn who is trying to buy political power in their state. And pre-registration for 16- and 17-year olds, another recently passed reform, will let high schoolers sign up to vote while they are still in school and actively learning about the civic process, rather than once they’ve graduated and are more focused on navigating the complexities of college or full-time employment.
Another promising new bill that has yet to pass the legislature would let Washington localities choose their own voting systems. One such system is ranked choice voting. It gives voters more choice at the ballot, inspires candidates to run positive, issue-focused campaigns, and eliminates the need for “strategic voting” — that is, voting for the major-party candidate, even if you’d prefer to vote for an independent or third-party contender.
Put all these reforms together, and you can imagine the result. Positive campaigns run by a wide range of candidates with innovative political ideas. Candidates funded by regular voters — and better transparency of that funding. Recent high school graduates getting a ballot in the mail as soon as they turn 18, without having to wait in a long line or show up to a physical polling place, and having the time to think carefully about their political decisions before dropping their ballot in the mail. And ultimately, elected leaders who are more accountable to their voters.
This isn’t a pipe dream; it’s a burgeoning political reality unfolding in a corner of the United States. I cling to this knowledge, because it reminds me that American democracy is not dead. Far from it. In Washington State — and in many other cities and states all across this country — creative policymakers are rewriting the political rules to limit special-interest influence and help their constituents have a stronger say. Thanks to them, our democracy has a fighting chance.
Charlotte Hill is a political science PhD student at UC Berkeley and sits on the boards of national political reform organizations Represent.Us and FairVote.