Could One State Save American Democracy?

01/14/2018 01:16 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2018
Washington State Parks & Recreation Commission

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.

Perhaps the most exciting of these initiatives comes from 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.

The voucher program is only one of Washington’s democratic innovations. The state also holds its elections entirely by mail, saving precious time for voters and money for the state.

And the Washington Senate Democrats just unveiled a series of proposed laws that would expand voting access across the state. Automatic and same-day voter registration would eliminate unnecessary barriers for people who want to exercise their right to vote. Greater disclosure of political advertising would help Washingtonians learn who is trying to buy political power in their state. And pre-registration for 16- and 17-year olds would 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 would let Washington localities choose their own voting systems. One such system is ranked choice voting, which 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 just 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. Voters 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. And ultimately, elected leaders who are accountable to the people.

This isn’t a pipe dream; it’s a burgeoning political reality unfolding here in 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.

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