Fall 2018 Journal: Can We Build a Better Society with Publicly Financed Elections?

By Brooke Barron

Edited by Emory Wolf

Facing the consequences of persistent societal inequalities, some state and city governments are looking to the public financing of elections as a tool to amplify the voices of citizens too often excluded from the political process. Early results from an innovative model first implemented in Seattle in 2017 suggest that public financing incentivizes candidate outreach to a more diverse group of citizens and may be effective in achieving an electorate and a donor base that is more reflective of the city’s demographics. Given the established research indicating that donors have disproportionate influence over the policy decisions of elected officials, a donor base that is more representative of society may result in policies that benefit those who have been traditionally marginalized and underserved by the political system. 


What does it mean for a society to be good? Does it require a government that is representative of its citizens’ stated interests? A government that works to maximize the utility of its people, even when it goes against their expressed preferences? Does a good society demand a government that protects the interests of the minority when the majority fails to do so? And who chooses this government, anyway? These questions are inherent in any consideration about how to measure equity and how to justify policy decisions, and there are no simple answers to be found. Questions about who governs for whom and what the responsibilities of citizenship entail have led me to contemplate the use of public funds to finance campaigns and shift incentives — both for citizens and for elected officials — in order to better align the interests of the people with the interests that policymaking traditionally protects and promotes. 


Under the United States’ current laws, every citizen over the age of 18 is able to cast one vote. However, legal, economic, cultural, and political realities dictate that many citizens do not participate at the ballot box. It may be because they cannot afford to take time off work on the Tuesday of Election Day; because they have a felony conviction and live in a state where felons are disenfranchised; because they do not have a ride to the polls; because they do not have a form of identification that satisfies their jurisdictions’ standards; or because they do not see candidates who reflect their values. When people are excluded — or exclude themselves — from the political process, the voices of those who remain are amplified. Perhaps it would not be such a significant problem if the non-voting citizens were equally distributed across the socioeconomic and racial spectrum — but they are not. As The New York Times reported in 2016, “the richer, older, and more educated you are, the more likely you are to vote.”1 In recent elections, people of color have made up a far greater proportion of the non-voter pool than the likely voter pool2 and in 2016, Asian, Latino, and black turnout lagged behind white turnout as the percentage of black voters fell by seven percent — the first major decline since 1996.3 

Candidates for public office know this, and if they are rational actors, they do not spend time interacting with non-voters on the campaign trail. Likewise, they do not feel the need to pay attention to their interests once in office. In her 2003 article “Rethinking Representation,” political scientist Jane Mansbridge identified the “surrogate” model as one of four legitimate forms of representation for elected officials to fulfill. Surrogate representation occurs when an elected official acts in accordance with the preferences and priorities of individuals or groups “with whom one has no electoral relationship.”4 In other words, people who are not that official’s constituents. 

However, the non-voters she discusses in the surrogate model are rarely those who cannot find a ride to the polls — they are interest groups, they are identity groups, they are out-of-district donors. Those who do not vote and do not donate do not have a seat at the table where the policy pie is served. As a result, everyone who managed to find a seat is served a bigger slice. This reality calls into question one of the most core values we assume is true as participants in American democracy: the principle of one person, one vote. 


At our nation’s founding, the drafters of the Declaration of Independence did not tell the whole story; their understanding of who constituted a human being was so limited that women, blacks, and non-landowners never had a fair shot, for starters. Despite all the advances our country has made, from abolishing slavery to ratifying the 19th Amendment to passing the Civil Rights Act, whites still vote more often than people of color, the rich vote more than the poor, and Congress in 2018 is 80.5 percent male and 78.8 percent white,5 while representing a U.S. population that is 49.2 percent male and 61.3 percent white.6 These drastic imbalances in representation and political opportunity reveal flaws intrinsic to our political system. There is no justification for a system that creates such disparities that stands up to scrutiny based on any conception of equity.


When examining political participation beyond casting a vote, political donors — whom candidates rely upon to fund their elections — look even less like the average citizen. As noted by John Powell in the Berkeley Journal of African-American Law and Policy, “campaign finance reform is a voting rights issue” and the campaign finance system is “the latest incarnation of the politics of exclusion.”7 The wealthier, more educated, and older an American is, the more likely they are to donate. People with family incomes over $150,000 are four and a half times more likely to donate to a political candidate than those earning less than $30,000, and people with a postgraduate degree are four times more likely to donate than those with a high school diploma or less.8 

These patterns of behavior have predictable results, with studies showing that political contributions result in greater representation for the wealthy. Similar research identifies the campaign contributions of upper-income Americans “as a possible causal mechanism to explain the representational distortions that favor them.”9 Figure 110 shows how unrepresentative the distribution of contributions has become.

Figure 1: Share of Population, Donors, and Contributions, by Race and Gender10
Source: McElwee, Sean et al.  (2017)


When assessing how equitable American representation truly is, essential questions to consider are who is in the room when policy decisions are made, on whose behalf elected officials are governing, and how to realistically broaden the pool of people whose interests are represented by the policymakers elected to serve them. Asking politicians to devote their limited time and political capital to people who do not vote and do not donate is difficult to justify; rational actors cannot be expected to behave in this way. However, policy can attempt to increase political participation of previously excluded groups so that it would be in a rational actor’s best interest to seek their vote and govern in recognition of their political power. An effective policy proposal would ensure these underserved groups actually have political power to be recognized.



Most campaign finance reform proposals focus on regulating contributions from the high dollar donors. However, there may be more public interest in guaranteeing the voices of all, rather than limiting the voices of some. In an effort to achieve greater political access for those who have traditionally been excluded, Seattle voters passed an innovative model of public financing that went into effect for the November 2017 City Council and City Attorney elections. Every voting eligible citizen, whether or not they were a registered voter, was able to receive four $25 “democracy vouchers” that they could donate to any qualified candidate for the City Council or City Attorney races. In order to qualify for the vouchers, candidates had to receive a baseline number of small dollar donations, participate in public debates, and agree to overall campaign contribution and spending caps. Funding for the vouchers came from a property tax increase of $2 per $100,000 in home value — or $20 annually for a million dollar home. 

The system is not perfect; in fact, it is predicted that only 13 percent of residents would be able to use their vouchers before the program ran out of money,11, 12 and it is unclear whether the process will elect measurably different candidates. However, results from November indicate that the vouchers have incentivized previously excluded Seattle citizens to donate and incentivized candidates to reach out to those citizens. It is estimated that “84 percent of this cycle’s Seattle donors were new donors — about 20,900 individuals who had not contributed to city candidates in the 2015 or 2013 cycles. Among these new donors, 71 percent were voucher donors.”13 In the Seattle mayor’s race, which did not make use of vouchers (the 2021 mayoral race will utilize vouchers), 51.6 percent of donations came from households with incomes of at least $100,000, 9 percent came from households with incomes below $50,000, and 11 percent came from people of color. For donations made using vouchers to the City Council and City Attorney races, 35.8 percent came from households with incomes over $100,000, 14 percent came from households with incomes below $50,000, and 14 percent came from people of color.14 More analysis is needed to examine whether the established correlation between donating and other forms of political participation, like voting and volunteering,15 holds when the money donated comes from public funds and not from an individual’s bank account. However, the results from Seattle suggest a promising start and almost certainly an improvement over the status quo in terms of political participation for all members of society. 


In Justice as Fairness, John Rawls writes of equal basic liberties and the fair equality of opportunity principle, stating that justice requires that every person have the same claim to basic liberties and that opportunities be fairly open to all. The public funding of vouchers appears to satisfy these principles, and indeed, to advance them. Rawls writes in A Theory of Justice that:

“If the public forum is to be free and open to all, and in continuous session, everyone should be able to make use of it. All citizens should have the means to be informed about political issues. They should be in a position to assess how proposals affect their well-being and which policies advance their conception of the public good. Moreover, they should have a fair chance to add alternative proposals to the agenda for political discussion. The liberties protected by the principle of participation lose much of their value whenever those who have greater private means are permitted to use their advantages to control the course of public debate.16

The provision of vouchers tackles the issue of participation relatively narrowly, and would likely gain strength from targeted outreach and education to provide citizens the ability to make informed, meaningful choices. 

Because there are compelling public reasons for using taxpayer funds to incentivize political participation among the traditionally excluded, taxpayer-financed vouchers meet public reason’s standard of legitimacy established by Rawls in The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.17 Under the contractarian view of equity advanced by John Locke, each person is entitled to fair representation in the room where policy decisions are made. This is a value that a diverse citizenry can accept, and in order to meet the public reason standard, the focus of these policies should be on increasing participation without concern for who gets elected. It is the means, not the ends, that matter here. 

As with any policy that depends upon public funds, there are important tradeoffs to scrutinize when it comes to taxpayer financing of campaigns, given the inevitable resource constraints that all modern societies face. A primary criterion to evaluate the policy may be its effectiveness at increasing political participation among the low-income and people of color. However, I suspect that a policy that uses political contributions as a proxy for political participation will have a distinct advantage over policies aimed solely at improving voting rates, such as establishing Election Day as a holiday or making voting compulsory. Although voters matter infinitely more to elected officials than non-voters do, donors matter even more. The Democrats’ tongue-in-cheek christening of the comprehensive tax reform bill signed by President Trump in December 2017 as the “Donor Relief Act of 2017” is only partially in jest. It matters less to elected officials that only 25 percent of voters support the bill,18 and more that most of their donors do. The donors have power that speaks louder than votes. 

I am under no illusions that $25 in democracy vouchers will be able to compete against billionaires with unlimited spending capacity. However, when certain segments of the population are so excluded from the political system that the ruling class is not even aware of the issues they face, any improvement is important. Rawls warns of a state where “the less favored members of society, having been effectively prevented by their lack of means from exercising their fair degree of influence, withdraw into apathy and resentment.”19 Publicly funded vouchers could provide a meaningful step away from that familiar sounding apathy and resentment, and I reiterate that it is the means, not the ends, that matter most in this conception of political representation. 


Examining ways to advance truly just and equitable policies, John Rawls proposes the idea of a “veil of ignorance,” under which policymakers cast aside the knowledge of their own position in society in order to make decisions that are in the best interest of the community as a whole. Rawls theorizes that if “no one know his place in society, his class position or social status” or “the particular circumstances of their own society”20 and its economic and political situation, policymakers will act in a way that ensures they can accept the consequences of their policies, no matter into which social stratum they fall. No American citizen, operating under Rawls’ veil of ignorance, could sincerely argue that the current system’s prioritization of the preferences of the few at the expense of the many has resulted in an equitable and just society. In addition to an evaluation of the tradeoffs required to pay for publicly financed campaigns, the question of whether there is a correlation between public financing programs and increased political participation among previously excluded groups — as well as the relationship between who elects a politician (either through their votes or through their dollars) and on whose behalf that politician governs — merits more research and more thorough analysis than this short article can complete. However, if the relationships between money, voting, and influence contemplated here hold up under scrutiny, then public financing of campaigns could be an effective tool for building a better society through public policy.

1. Parlapiano, Alicia and Adam Pearce. “For Every 10 U.S. Adults, Six Vote and Four Don’t. What Separates
2. “The Party of Nonvoters.” Pew Research Center, October 31, 2014, http://www.people-press.org/2014/10/31/the
3. Krogstad, Jens Manuel and Mark Hugo Lopez. “Black turnout fell in 2016, even as a record number of Americans
4. Mansbridge, Jane. “Rethinking Representation.” American Political Science Review, November 2003.a
5. Manning, Jennifer. “Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile.” Congressional Research Service, April 12,
6. “U.S. Census Quick Facts.” U.S. Census Bureau, 2016,
7. Powell, John. “Campaign Finance Reform is a Voting Rights Issue: The Campaign Finance System as the Latest
8. Hughes, Adam. “5 facts about U.S. political donations.” Pew Research Center, May 17, 2017,
9. Powell, Lynda. “The Influence of Campaign Contributions on the Legislative Process.” Duke Journal of
10. McElwee, Sean et al. “How the Skewed Demographics of the Donor Class Pull Our Politics to the Right.” Slate, 2017.
11. Proponents argue that the current rate of “1-1.5% of adults who now contribute campaigns in most cities” is so low that the program running out of money is not a realistic concern.
12. Berman, Russell. “Seattle’s Experiment with Campaign Funding.” The Atlantic, November 10, 2015,
13. Friedenbach, Laura. “Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers Reduce the Power of Big Money and Expand Political
14. Balk, Gene. “Do Seattle’s democracy vouchers work? New analysis says yes.” The Seattle Times, October 15,
15. Corrado, Anthony, et al. “Reform in the Age of Networked Campaigns.” The Campaign Finance Institute,
16. Rawls, John. “A Theory of Justice.” The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. 
17 .Rawls, John. “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” The University of Chicago Law Review, 1997,
18. “Voters Rejects GOP Tax Plan 2-1.” Quinnipiac University Poll, November 15, 2017,
19. Rawls, John, 1971.
20. Ibid.