Presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) recently unveiled an ill-advised scheme called “Democracy Dollars.” The plan is to tighten up corporate tax loopholes and shower the American people with marginal revenue. But there’s a catch — the recipients can only use the money for contributions to political campaigns. Thus, Gillibrand’s twist on Robin Hood steals back tax revenue from King John, gives the money to the poor, and then forces the poor to pass it on to the Sheriff of Nottingham’s next election campaign.
Her proposal is a guaranteed policy failure and a violation of taxpayers’ constitutional rights.
Here’s how Gillibrand’s Clean Elections Plan would work: Each eligible voter is entitled to $200 of federal tax dollars per federal race (House, Senate and president), which the recipient can only spend as a campaign contribution to a candidate who opts into the program. Any candidate who opts in must agree to a $200 contribution limit, as opposed to the standard $5,600 limit for federal elections ($2,800 for the primary and $2,800 for the general election).
“Democracy Dollars” are meant to reduce the influence of wealthy donors on our elections. But we don’t have to bother experimenting with this expensive, clunky system before giving it a hard pass.
The problems with Gillibrand’s proposal are both political and legal. Gillibrand’s program follows the basic framework of a similar idea tried in Seattle. In 2017, Seattle created a “Democracy Voucher” program, wherein the city hands out four $25 vouchers to every resident for each election cycle. They can, in turn, devote that voucher money to candidates for local elected office. The city adopted a dedicated property tax to fund the vouchers. The voucher program’s big idea is to diversify the pool of viable political candidates and broaden political participation, especially among minorities and the poor.
But the Seattle program has proven unworthy of emulation. While the program had a massive price tag, it made no dent in political outcomes. A city-commissioned report shows that the city raised $6 million in property tax dollars for the program and managed to blow a whopping $2.2 million of that sum on administrative and implementation costs alone. Only about $1 million of the $6 million raised actually went to vouchers, and the City dumped more money into administrative costs than campaign funding. The waste is alarming.
But the track record worsens. Data demonstrate that this measly one-sixth did not fulfill any of the voucher program’s goals. The Seattle program was supposed to broaden political participation. It didn’t. Only 4 percent of the vouchers issued were used. And that measly portion of the electorate who used the vouchers tended to be white, wealthy and already politically engaged. If anything, the program only strengthened the participation of the already powerful groups whose influence the program planned to curb.
At the end of the day, the program appeared to have zero influence over the actual outcome of Seattle elections. Despite this obvious policy flop, Gillibrand touts Seattle’s program as an example to follow.
Gillibrand’s proposal also faces hurdles common to all public campaign financing schemes. The public financing scheme, which usually limits or forbids reliance on private money if a candidate opts in, must somehow entice candidates to participate. In Gillibrand’s case, candidates are unlikely to agree to a $200 contribution cap when the Federal Election Commission’s current cap stands at $5,600. Given the prospect of such meager participation rates of the voucher program, it’s very unlikely that the Clean Elections Plan will create enough new donors to make the scheme worthwhile to candidates.
The other problem is that campaign finance programs such as Gillibrand’s almost always favor incumbents and experienced politicians. Qualifying to participate in public financing in the first place can be complicated and often requires a pre-established level of name recognition. Public funding, therefore, naturally favors savvy politicians with the experience and the lawyers to navigate labyrinthine election laws. This is precisely what happened in Seattle — political newcomers who tried to use the voucher program found the program to be a hurdle to their candidacies, not a boon.
But an even more significant issue yet looms — the First Amendment. The government cannot force taxpayers to front the cash for someone else’s campaign contributions. The Supreme Court drove home this message just last year in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. There, the Supreme Court held that unions could not compel non-members to pay dues that went to pay for an array of lobbying, campaign contributions and political spending.
The same principle applies to the general electorate. While we often must put up with sundry misuses of our tax dollars by government, we don’t have to put up with government handing off tax dollars to private individuals to sponsor their political expression. The Supreme Court elsewhere has said that it does not matter, for First Amendment purposes, whether such a compelled subsidy of speech comes from a targeted assessment — such as union dues — or general tax revenue, such as Gillibrand’s proposal.
Two Seattle taxpayers, represented by Pacific Legal Foundation, challenged Seattle’s voucher program on this very theory. They lost at the trial court level. However, after the Supreme Court decided Janus, the appellate court punted the case up to the state supreme court, stating that the case raised fundamental and important questions best addressed by the state’s highest court. The Washington Supreme Court will hear arguments, in that case, this month.
Gillibrand’s Clean Elections Plan suffers from the same flaws that afflict Seattle’s voucher program. Like every other public campaign financing scheme, vouchers do nothing to change the political status quo and waste taxpayer money. But “Democracy Dollars” would be even worse than that — they would also violate the First Amendment rights of every taxpayer in the country.
Ethan Blevins is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, which litigates nationwide to achieve court victories enforcing the Constitution’s guarantee of individual liberty. Follow him on Twitter @ethanwb.