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Seattle's Voucher Test Tried To Flood Local Politics With Small Money


This seems to be a fundamental truth of American politics. Less money can mean less influence. The city of Seattle tried an experiment to change that - not by taking big money out of politics, but by flooding it with small money. Here's Kenny Malone from our Planet Money podcast and Sarah Kliff from Vox.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: In 2015, Seattle voted to do something unprecedented - to send money to everybody so they could donate to political campaigns.

SARAH KLIFF: A half million Seattleites needed to receive a hundred dollars in vouchers.


MALONE: So you're the man the voucher program fell on.


MALONE: Wayne Barnett is the executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

BARNETT: I was excited on one level because it is very innovative program. But at the same time, it was kind of terrifying because it is an innovative program.

KLIFF: Nowhere else in the country had tried a program like this. And Barnett had to figure out everything.

MALONE: How to mail these things out, what a voucher should even look like, what the envelope should look like.


BARNETT: This is the envelope that included the vouchers, and it just said...

KLIFF: In the end, there were four $25 vouchers. They looked kind of like blue checks. And they came in an envelope that said, your Democracy Vouchers are here.

MALONE: And to be honest, it looked a little like junk mail.


TERESA MOSQUEDA: Frankly, I thought it was news about recycling, so I recycled it.

KLIFF: This is Teresa Mosqueda. And these vouchers were so unusual that even Mosqueda, a city council candidate that year, thought they were junk mail.


MOSQUEDA: And only later did I think to myself, well, I think that might be the vouchers. And I went back and pulled it out.

MALONE: And so the city needed to tell people, hey, these are your vouchers. So they put up posters. They did interviews. There's also a lost voucher commercial featuring a talking dog.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That's my human. She's looking for Democracy Vouchers. But she's not going to find them because I ate them (burping).

MALONE: Anyway, these vouchers allowed new kinds of candidates to run for office. Teresa Mosqueda, for example, was a first-time candidate - a renter who was still paying off her student loans.

KLIFF: She says she wouldn't have run without the vouchers. In fact, she was funding her campaign with them, which meant she had to knock on a lot of doors and talk to a lot of voters.


MOSQUEDA: They were like, it's really you on this flyer. You're here at my door. And I was like, yes. I'm out here introducing myself. And they would say, hold on. I'll be right back. They'd find the Democracy Vouchers in a pile on their table of mail, and they'd come back and they'd fill it out there, right at the door.

MALONE: And this was the program working - new candidates running for office, incentives for them to meet voters face-to-face and more voters participating in campaign finance.


BARNETT: Well, the bottom line is it tripled.

KLIFF: Again, Wayne Barnett.


BARNETT: We had roughly 18,000 people who contributed to political campaigns.

KLIFF: Which is great, but on the other hand, there were hundreds of thousands of people who got these vouchers and did not contribute.

MALONE: And, Barnett admits, there was also a bigger issue.


BARNETT: It is not a cheap program to run.

MALONE: As in, the whole program costs $2 million, paid for by a tax increase. And half of that money went to administrative costs.


BARNETT: Right - but, I mean, I think the question is, is your municipality - are they willing to pay to get more people involved in the political process? Seattle made the decision that we're willing to pay for that good.

KLIFF: Seattle is sticking with the Democracy Voucher program. It'll be back for city elections next year. I'm Sarah Kliff, host of The Impact podcast from Vox.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenny Malone hails from Meadville, PA where the zipper was invented, where Clark Gable’s mother is buried and where, in 2007, a wrecking ball broke free from a construction site, rolled down North Main Street and somehow wound up inside the trunk of a Ford Taurus sitting at a red light.
Sarah Kliff
Kenny Malone
Kenny Malone is a correspondent for NPR's Planet Money podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for WNYC's Only Human podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for Miami's WLRN. And before that, he was a reporter for his friend T.C.'s homemade newspaper, Neighborhood News.