Regardless of what ideology you subscribe to or what side of the aisle you sit on, one fact has become indisputable: money has transformed the political landscape and has become the lifeblood of United States politics. It is also the most statistically quantifiable difference between winning and losing.
According to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization dedicated to analyzing the impact of money on elections and public policy, in the 2020 election cycle, more than 87 percent of House races and more than 71 percent of Senate races were won by the candidate, who spent the most money.
Fair elections are at the heart of any true democracy: a country cannot be truly democratic unless all its citizens can elect their representatives through free and fair elections. While it can be argued that elections in the United States are free, based on OpenSecrets’ amazing data, it might be time to question the fairness of the process.
Ideally, to be considered fair, all candidates should have an equal chance of being nominated and elected. I’m running for Providence City Council to represent the North End. As a first-time candidate, coming from the ranks of the working class and lacking the connections and social capital to raise significant funds to run a competitive race, I quickly learned just how far we are from that ideal. Statistically and historically, big money has created an uneven playing field in politics, giving candidates an unfair advantage with access to donors that others cannot. This also feeds the power of incumbents; Once financially strong candidates are in office, it is all the more difficult to remove them. This is by definition an undemocratic process. Fortunately, there are new and innovative ways to counteract this alarming trend.
In November 2015, Seattle voters passed an initiative that revolutionized the way local campaigns are funded in the city. Launched during the 2017 election cycle, the Democracy Vouchers program aims to offset the outsized influence of wealthy donors and corporations and support a more democratic process. Essentially, the Seattle Ethics and Electoral Commission, a nonpartisan and independent city governing body, gives four $25 democracy coupons to every registered voter in Seattle at the beginning of each election cycle. Each voter can either donate their vouchers to a single candidate or distribute them among several, as they see fit. And according to a University of Washington study, the program is having the desired effect, which cites a “53 percent increase in overall contributions and a 350 percent increase in the number of individual donors.”
The Seattle Democracy Voucher program will be funded with a $3 million per year property tax through 2025, costing the average Seattle homeowner about $8 per year. This is less than 0.2 percent of the $1.74 billion budgeted for the 2022 General Fund by the Seattle City Budget Office.
In Providence, for decades, the interests of real estate developers and wealthy individuals have driven mayoral and city council policies and, in turn, public policy in our city. Given the success of the Democracy Voucher program in Seattle, a similar program in Providence could be just as effective in making our city’s politics more inclusive and democratic.
This is a radical plan to resist big money in politics, one that I will fight vigorously for in Providence if I am elected to the city council. It is an initiative that has been tested and is working. If implemented on a similar scale to Seattle’s, the cost to Providence’s taxpayers would be minimal given the city’s fiscal 2023 budget of $568 million.
This politically transformative program has allowed ordinary citizens to influence elections the way wealthy donors do. Meanwhile, the cost to taxpayers is negligible, especially given the benefits of greater representation and political decision-making. It’s a revolutionary and innovative change in campaign finance that will result in elections that are more representative of voters overall. It will increase voter turnout, limit the influence of political action committees and ensure more candidates can communicate their message and agenda.
Much has been said in recent years about the sustainability of our country’s democratic values. This program offers a viable and proven method towards a democracy that better reflects the will of the whole community. It must be considered in cities across the country, including and especially the City of Providence.
Justin Roias is a school social worker, licensed mental health counselor and candidate for Providence City Council.