Democracy in America is in a precarious state. The deadly attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 served as a call for authoritarians to use undemocratic tools to consolidate power by tightening restrictions on the right to vote, undermining the courts, ransacking districts and resisting the actualization of a multiracial democracy. Since the attack, 18 states have passed 34 restrictive voting bills, which often have a disproportionately negative effect on voters of color. As our democracy recedes and becomes less representative, powerful and wealthy interests gain more and more influence and trust in our institutions continues to erode.
Bucking the trend, the city of Oakland is experimenting with an idea that could serve to strengthen participation, representation and racial justice. Oakland Rx for our sick democracy? A “Democracy Dollars” initiative that provides residents with vouchers they can use to direct state-funded contributions to candidates of their choice. Giving more power to the people to finance campaigns is a creative and effective response to the domination of our elections and our politics by financial interests.
Growing political inequality
For decades, the Supreme Court has cut corners on laws aimed at limiting the corrupting influence of political donations. This effort culminated in the infamous 2010 case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which eliminated caps on independent political spending by businesses and unions, as long as donations do not go directly to a candidate. This has led to more influence for a small number of powerful interests, including wealthy mega-donors, whose donations to independent “super PACs” have increased since this decision.
It’s no wonder that trust in government is at an all-time low, and polls consistently show that a large majority of Americans think government is corrupt. Most Americans believe that our political systems only work for insiders with money and power – and people are not wrong to suspect that things will get even worse.
Putting so much power in the hands of so few reinforces racial bias in our politics, as candidates prioritize the interests of their donors, who are more likely to be wealthy and white, while the needs of voters in color are left behind.
Philanthropy’s ability to understand these forces and coordinate strategic grantmaking in response will be a critical factor in determining how our democracy fares and how we can turn the tide to build a more inclusive democracy. It’s time for our field to do more to counter the corrosive role of big money in American politics.
An Opportunity for Change in Oakland
The flow of money from special interests and the wealthy doesn’t just happen in national elections. In Oakland, for example, the spending of high net worth individuals and special interests has a massive impact on local elections. A recent study looked at local election spending in Oakland from 2014 to 2020 and found:
Only half of the fundraising came from Oakland residents.
Oakland’s three predominantly white ZIP codes were responsible for 45% of contributions from Oakland residents, while representing only 21% of the city’s population.
The four Oakland ZIP codes that had at least 75% people of color were responsible for only 16% of Oakland’s donor money while containing 40% of Oakland’s population.
Donors giving less than $100 provided only 6% of applicants’ total funding.
The outsized influence of the wealthy was also confirmed in a study conducted for the Oakland Commission on Public Ethics, which found that wealthy donors have more access and influence over the city’s elected officials.
So what can be done to reduce the influence of the big bucks and give power back to the people? The Fair Elections Oakland Coalition, made up of local power-building organizations and longtime experts on democratic reform, believes it has found an answer in “Democracy Dollars.” Our foundations and other funding partners are supporting Fair Elections Oakland to help make this idea a reality.
Democracy Dollars is a public election funding model that has been piloted in Seattle since 2017. There, the program works by offering adult residents four $25 vouchers that they can donate to any qualified municipal candidate they choose. . The program turns every resident into a potential donor and makes every household, even those who don’t vote, deserve to be involved. Just a few cycles into this experiment, Seattle has already dramatically increased the number of small donors contributing to local elections. The program is credited with changing the way candidates run their campaigns, removing barriers to who can run for office and who donates in elections, expanding the voices that are heard and, in turn, improve voter turnout.
A recent poll of Oakland voters found that many residents don’t donate to local political campaigns because they simply can’t afford it. As a result, their households are often ignored by candidate campaigns. Implementing a Democracy Dollars program in Oakland can dramatically change this dynamic. By making all residents potential donors, the program can reduce the influence of wealthy interests and amplify the voices of people of color and low-income Oaklanders.
This is exactly what is happening in Seattle. In 2017, Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda became the first candidate for City Council to run and win using Democracy Dollars. Mosqueda was a labor activist before running for office. As someone who was always renting and paying off her college debt, she would never have thought she could run for public office. But when Seattle launched the program, it realized it didn’t need a rolodex of wealthy donors; instead of dialing for dollars, she could meet constituents and organize. Mosqueda eventually won her seat and remains a community champion on the council.
At the Haas, Jr. Fund and the Piper Fund, we see the potential of this system to help local organizations build community power. Democracy Dollars are a proven opportunity to increase representation by leveling the playing field for new, community-connected candidates to effectively run for office. We see promise in these candidates being accountable to more residents, not just the small number of wealthy donors in elite ZIP codes or billionaires in other cities and states. And finally, we see how a system like this can help restore trust in elected leaders and democracy at all levels.
Democracy Dollars is an example of the powerful support that 501(c)(3) funders can deploy to protect democracy at the local level. To ensure successful implementation, urgent work is needed to build a bigger, stronger and more engaged coalition, deepen policy research, develop a communications strategy, survey voters and educate them to take action. As we just saw in the California primary elections, the lower the turnout, the more unrepresentative the electorate and the less likely policies are to reflect the needs of voters of color. Philanthropy is an essential partner in providing support in building and strengthening coalitions like Fair Elections Oakland. And once the elections are over, additional resources will be needed to monitor implementation and ensure the program is successful and becomes a model for the state and the country.
At a time of great (and deserved) cynicism about money in our politics, democracy dollars are cause for optimism. We urge our colleagues in philanthropy to support the important and innovative democracy work happening on the ground in communities like Oakland, because every voice should count, not just those with big bucks behind them. To learn more about this effort and how to get involved, please contact us at [email protected] and [email protected]
Raúl Macías is Director of the Democracy Program at the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund. Tiffany Mendoza is Program Officer for the Piper Fund.