Wealthy donors have always had an outsized influence in our democracy, but misguided jurisprudence, like the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, has opened the floodgates for mega donations and corporate spending in our elections.
Spending on political races has skyrocketed, and running for office has never been more expensive. The 2016 election cycle was the most expensive in U.S. history with almost $6.5 billion spent. As a result, unless candidates are independently wealthy, they often need to court contributions from mega-donors or corporate interests to be competitive in their races.
This gives a very small number of people massive influence on who runs for office and, often, what issues they decide to talk about. In 2016, fewer than 400 families gave more than half of all of the money raised in the presidential race. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work. Our democracy is supposed to be based on the principle of one person, one vote.
Ultimately, we need to overturn Citizens United and make other systemic changes if we want to get big money out of our elections. But large-scale changes like these take time, public pressure, and elected leaders who are committed to making it happen. That’s why we’re researching and advocating for small donor empowerment programs, that will bring power back to the people.
These programs match contributions of ordinary people with public funds. Candidates access these funds when they opt into the program and refuse to take large and corporate contributions. This means anyone with enough public support can run for office, those candidates can raise enough money to be competitive, and they will be answerable to their constituents, not a handful of mega-donors and corporations.
Seattle is one of 29 cities, states and counties across the country with small donor matching systems. The "Honest Elections" program offers $25 "democracy vouchers" for candidates running for Mayor, City Attorney, City Council and district City Council. Available data from Seattle shows that the democracy voucher program has already spurred impressive levels of engagement, particularly among younger voters. The evidence is clear—Washington should make small donor empowerment programs statewide.