Much of Bernie Sanders’s wide-ranging platform, from aggressive climate action to canceling student debt, has been well-discussed and is a major reason for his strong popularity. But one aspect of his political vision has been less examined: the overhaul of our dysfunctional campaign finance system.
Currently, economic inequality translates into profound political inequality. Less than one half of 1 percent of Americans contributed over $200 in the 2018 federal election cycle, providing 71 percent of overall funds. Unsurprisingly, the donor class is disproportionately white, wealthy, and conservative. And post–Citizens United, outside political spending (that which is supposedly not in coordination with a campaign) has skyrocketed, leading to increased political power for a handful of billionaires. When popular left policies are up against such stacked odds, they don’t stand much of a chance.
To combat this political inequality, Sanders wants to radically expand who is a political contributor by giving all Americans vouchers through a program he calls “Universal Small Dollar Vouchers,” for the exclusive purpose of funding eligible political candidates. The details of the plan — how much each voucher would be worth — have not been specified, but during a recent town hall he floated amounts from $50 to $200 per American.
If implemented for Congressional elections, such a public campaign finance system would help democratize political power in the United States. It would encourage politicians to build greater networks of financial support across diverse communities, making them less reliant upon current donors, and allow insurgent candidates to run for office regardless of their background.
According to Sanders, vouchers could also spark political engagement: “[The program] suddenly makes people begin to think about politics in a way that they have not thought about it before,” he explained in New Hampshire. A voter may think: “I’ve got a bit of power here. I better start studying whether I like candidate X or candidate Y — who is going to represent my interest best?’”
Democracy vouchers have worked in practice. In 2015, Seattle voters adopted them. Now every resident receives four $25 vouchers to give to local politicians of their choice. In the two election cycles since its passage, the results have been promising.
In the first year of the program, the number of donors tripled and almost 90 percent of voucher users were first time local election contributors. So too were voucher users more socioeconomically diverse and younger than cash donors. Even more excitingly, public financing helped progressive candidates beat back an attempt by Amazon to purchase city council elections in 2019.
Though available evidence shows Seattle’s democracy vouchers have not yet fully diversified the donor pool, especially in terms of race, there is plenty of reason to believe that, with more experience and targeted intervention by community groups, this program will further democratize elections.
Sanders is not the only candidate who advocates for public campaign financing. In fact, every Democrat has done so. But Sanders is the only frontrunner to support democracy vouchers. (Andrew Yang, to his credit, was the first candidate to embrace the policy). Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and Amy Klobuchar have endorsed a small donor matching system, which — while still a major improvement over the status quo — requires at least some discretionary income to take advantage of it.
One of the standout features of the Sanders campaign is his incredible fundraising apparatus, relying exclusively on small donations. This highlights his trustworthiness and commitment to a bottom-up “political revolution,” one in which wealthy donors play no part. But while focusing on fundraising is a great talking point, actually reshaping political power across American government will be a much taller order.
Indeed, as Chris Maisano rightly notes, “big economic demands” plus “increased voter turnout” does not alone suffice as a realistic theory of change. For even if Sanders is elected and not beholden to special interests, Congress would still be just as dependent upon an unrepresentative donor base. As such, the Left needs to take electoral reform far more seriously as part of its broader strategy: both for legislative reasons and, as Maisano argues, to break the widespread cynicism that our government is incapable of actually serving the people.
Democratizing election rules that are stacked against working-class people (as part of a broader effort to democratize American society), combined with a movement presidency, has the best chance to unleash the potential for broad-based change. And it paves the way for a less hostile political environment well after Sanders leaves the public stage. Promoting Sanders’s comprehensive commitment to reforming democracy — one that he promises to prioritize if elected — is therefore a clear and concrete way to convince voters that his independence from the wealthy and the bipartisan establishment is not only sincere but will actually lead to progress.
Furthermore, campaign finance reform is wildly popular. Ninety-four percent of Americans believe wealthy political donors are a major driver of political dysfunction and over three-fourths of Americans polled listed “reducing the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” as one of the top issues determining their vote in the 2018 midterms. Accordingly, Sanders’s strong reform plan would be a valuable wedge issue in the general election.
Donald Trump previously capitalized on anti-Washington sentiment by campaigning on draining the swamp and he will almost certainly continue to make this pledge throughout 2020, no matter how transparently hypocritical it is. Sanders, by embracing the boldest “anti-swamp” proposal, can parry the president’s messaging. And his commitment to reform will be believed given his concrete plan, long record of fighting for democracy, and grassroots fundraising base.
None of this is to suggest that the appeal of a Sanders presidency should be reduced to a question of election rules. Quite the contrary — he needs to promote a credible, radical vision of policies and concomitant political organizing that could transform society. But a robust conversation about how his plan for democracy reform would unlock a political revolution is a truly compelling message.