#873: The Seattle Experiment Seattle's radical solution to big money in politics: Flood elections with even more money.
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#873: The Seattle Experiment

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#873: The Seattle Experiment

#873: The Seattle Experiment

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KENNY MALONE, HOST:

Jon Grant grew up in Seattle, loved his hometown.

JON GRANT: We have mountains. We have beautiful bodies of water.

SARAH KLIFF, HOST:

But Jon also knew the city had flaws.

GRANT: When I was growing up, walking the streets of Seattle, it also had this enormous homeless population.

MALONE: Seattle had been struggling with housing issues, and this became Jon's key issue. He did community outreach with the homeless. He worked for the Tenants Union.

KLIFF: In 2015, Jon decided to take his first stab at local politics. He decided to run for city council. So he sat down and figured out how to fundraise.

GRANT: You make a list of everybody you know that could potentially donate the maximum amount, which back then was $700. And you go through that list pretty quick (laughter).

MALONE: It was dawning on Jon that working with the homeless was not the kind of job that connected him with a lot of rich donors. He managed to get mostly small donations.

GRANT: Ten, 15, 25, $50 - small grassroots donations.

KLIFF: And Jon was facing the classic well-funded incumbent who was pulling in donations from tech giants like Amazon...

MALONE: From insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

KLIFF: ...From real estate developers.

MALONE: In the end, Jon Grant managed to scrape together $75,000 for his campaign. His opponent raised five times that amount.

GRANT: If we just had the resources to get our message out to more voters, it's pretty clear, to me, at least, that we would've won that race.

MALONE: Yeah. Jon did not win the race.

KLIFF: And of course this is what happened. It is one of the most depressing things about American politics. The people Jon wanted to represent - they were people who didn't have money to donate.

MALONE: But business interests - they can donate all day long. And, unfortunately, that is just the way the system works.

KLIFF: That is, until Seattle decided to break the system.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "EDGE OF FEAR")

MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone. And today, I am joined by Sarah Kliff, host of Vox's The Impact podcast and herself a Seattlean (ph), Seattle...

KLIFF: Seattleite.

MALONE: Seattleite.

KLIFF: That's what we call ourselves.

MALONE: We are joining forces with The Impact because they just launched a new season and are here to tell the story of what happened when Seattleites tried to solve one of the most fundamental problems in American politics - the less money you have, the less influence you have.

KLIFF: And the way Seattle decided to deal with this wasn't to take big money out of politics. It was to flood their elections with small money.

MALONE: Today on the show, the Seattle experiment. It's a story that tests everything you thought you knew about the way our political system should work.

KLIFF: And also, there will be talking dogs.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "EDGE OF FEAR")

KLIFF: So, of course, if you are going to introduce a crazy new program, the only way to teach people about it is with a super earnest public service announcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The city of Seattle is giving eligible Seattle residents $100 in democracy vouchers they can use to support the participating candidates.

MALONE: Oh, my God. Why is it always, like, terrible acoustic music? I don't understand.

KLIFF: Seattle has so many good bands - Nirvana, Pearl Jam.

MALONE: They should've done grunge music.

KLIFF: Pearl Jam could've made a PSA.

MALONE: Yeah. Anyway, here is what that PSA is explaining. In 2015, Seattle residents agreed to raise property taxes so that the city could then send money to every single Seattleite - half a million Seattleites.

KLIFF: Right. Everyone would get four $25 vouchers that they could donate to candidates. And Seattle called these things Democracy Vouchers.

MALONE: So you're the man the voucher program fell on?

WAYNE BARNETT: Yes.

MALONE: Wayne Barnett is the executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. He was told, it is your job to somehow make this Democracy Voucher program work.

BARNETT: I was excited on one level because it is a very innovative program. But at the same time, it was kind of terrifying because it is an innovative program.

MALONE: One of the first things Wayne had to do was just, like, think through what are the goals of this program?

KLIFF: And there were a lot - increasing small donations, changing who donates, giving candidates a financial incentive to actually go out and meet voters.

MALONE: So Wayne and his team get designing - the vouchers, the envelopes they're going to come in. And pretty quickly, they realize that even teeny decisions are complicated.

BARNETT: There's been a big debate here about whether or not it made sense to send a postage-paid envelope.

KLIFF: Paid-postage envelopes - seems totally trivial. But if you're trying to get more people to donate money...

BARNETT: Why would you make it harder for people to use their vouchers than it has to be?

KLIFF: So great. It definitely makes sense to have return postage.

BARNETT: The counter to that is we should be encouraging contact between candidates and the public.

MALONE: Right. Another one of the program's goals was to get candidates to actually go out and talk to voters to tell them about issues and then ask for donations.

KLIFF: That might not happen if people can just mail their donations in.

MALONE: Eventually, they decided, OK, fine, better to include the stamp. But the point is Wayne and his team were redesigning Seattle's entire campaign finance system. And that is not easy.

BARNETT: All right. So this is the envelope that included the vouchers.

KLIFF: Wayne showed me the final product.

BARNETT: It's an envelope with vouchers in it, and it says $100.

KLIFF: Seattle voters were going to receive four blue and white pieces of paper. They look kind of like checks.

MALONE: And they, essentially, work like checks. You write the name of the candidate you want to donate to, and then you sign your Democracy Voucher over to that candidate.

KLIFF: The first week of 2017, Wayne Barnett's team put these vouchers in the mail.

MALONE: And this was unprecedented. No one in the country had tried anything like this before. Seattle was flooding its mailboxes with millions of dollars' worth of fake money that could magically turn into real money for candidates.

BARNETT: Here we go. City Council Position 8. And we have the two candidates. And we will start alphabetically at Jon Grant. Go ahead.

GRANT: All right, it's alphabetical advantage.

KLIFF: Remember Jon Grant, that advocate for the homeless who ran for the city council and lost to the well-funded opponent?

MALONE: Well, after Seattle launched this radical funding experiment, Jon Grant decided to get back in the game. This is him from a candidate forum he spoke at.

GRANT: I put forward a proposal requiring 25 percent of all new development to be affordable to working-class people. I have also put forward...

MALONE: This time around, Jon wasn't running against a well-funded incumbent. He had a different kind of opponent.

BARNETT: Thanks, Jon. Teresa.

TERESA MOSQUEDA: So one of the things that I'm calling for is real solutions.

KLIFF: This is Teresa Mosqueda, a first-time candidate.

MOSQUEDA: I'm calling for us to take every parcel of developable available land and turn it into affordable housing now.

MALONE: The thing about visionary civic programs to empower underdogs is, sure, they help out underdogs like Jon Grant, but they also bring out brand-new underdogs like Teresa Mosqueda.

MOSQUEDA: I'm a woman. I'm a person of color. I'm a renter. I still pay student loans. I'm 37. That someone like me wasn't going to be expected to self-finance a campaign really was a green light to say, go.

MALONE: Arguably, the Democracy Vouchers were already working. The two candidates vying for this city council seat - both would've had trouble raising money in the past.

KLIFF: But now, Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda just needed to get out there to knock on doors and convince voters to hand over their vouchers.

MALONE: Do you remember the first door you knocked on and asked for the voucher?

GRANT: I do.

MALONE: Oh, really?

GRANT: I do remember that door.

KLIFF: Jon Grant says there was a newspaper reporter tagging along, watching this historic moment - one of the first times anyone ever has asked for a Democracy Voucher.

MALONE: Jon was in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

GRANT: And we knock on the door, and this guy - he had a mustache. I don't know why I remember that, but I do. And this gentleman with a mustache looks at me, and I give him my pitch about our housing crisis.

MALONE: And eventually, Jon turns the conversation to the Democracy Vouchers.

GRANT: And I ask for, you know, $100 in Democracy Vouchers. And he kind of looked at me, and he also looked at the reporter and was like, sure (laughter). And he gave me one. He gave me one $25 voucher and closed his door. I knocked the rest of the block, and that was the only voucher that I got that day. And so the reporter was like, is that it? And I'm like, that's it (laughter).

MALONE: To be fair, Jon's luck got better over the next few weeks.

KLIFF: Meanwhile, Teresa Mosqueda is also out there, knocking on doors. She remembers voters being genuinely surprised that a real candidate would show up in person.

MOSQUEDA: They were like, it's really you on this flyer. You're here at my door. And I was like, yes. I'm out here introducing myself. And they would say, hold on. I'll be right back. They'd find the Democracy Vouchers in a pile on their table of mail, and they'd come back and they'd fill it out there, right at the door.

MALONE: And when door-knocking went like this, the program was great. But as these candidates were canvassing, it started to become clear the voucher program had a pretty big problem.

KLIFF: Imagine, if you will, knocking on the apartment door of this couple, Ross (ph) and Alice (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

KLIFF: Hi.

ROSS: Hello. Hey, guys.

ALICE: Hello.

KLIFF: Ross and Alice are young. They're politically engaged. They are the exact kind of voters that Jon Grant or Teresa Mosqueda would love to win over.

MALONE: And yet, if Jon or Teresa had shown up to their house and asked about the vouchers...

ROSS: I don't want to say you definitely threw them away.

ALICE: I threw them out, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

ALICE: No, I definitely threw them out. I remember getting it in the mail because it looked kind of like a ballot.

MALONE: Yeah, it seemed a lot of Seattleites were like Alice. They were getting these vouchers, mistaking them for junk mail and then throwing them away.

KLIFF: Well, Kenny, it was Seattle. They were recycling them.

MALONE: Sure. OK, yeah.

KLIFF: But remember, the program had never been attempted before. For a lot of people, the idea of getting $100 in the mail from their government to reform campaign finance was just too good to be true.

MALONE: But it wasn't just regular old voters getting confused.

MOSQUEDA: Frankly, I thought it was news about recycling, so I recycled it.

KLIFF: That's right. Even city council candidate Teresa Mosqueda recycled her vouchers.

MOSQUEDA: And only later did I think to myself, well, I think that might be the vouchers. And I went back and pulled it out.

MALONE: And I think here, it would help to talk about the design of the envelope that these things came in. I...

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER CRINKLING)

MALONE: ...Have a copy in the studio with us right now.

KLIFF: It's like, as long as a normal envelope - little taller, little bit fatter. To be honest, it kind of looks like a thing you'd get from Publishers Clearing House.

MALONE: There is an official Seattle City logo here. And then, also, it says, your Democracy Vouchers are here, exclamation point.

KLIFF: We looked at it with Wayne Barnett, the guy in charge of designing the envelope, the program - the whole thing.

MALONE: It has an opening envelope and then a circle with the number, $100, in it.

BARNETT: Right.

MALONE: I'm going to be honest, Wayne, I think I would throw this away.

BARNETT: (Laughter) Well, you did, and a lot of other people did.

KLIFF: That might be an understatement. Wayne estimates that about 75 percent of Seattleites either threw away or misplaced their Democracy Vouchers.

MALONE: You could've written on this, don't throw this away.

BARNETT: Right.

KLIFF: I usually - those are usually a scam.

MALONE: At first, I didn't know they were a scam, so it worked, like, once. But you could've tried something like that. Did anybody float that?

BARNETT: I don't think so.

MALONE: Just brainstorming here - just brainstorming.

BARNETT: OK, spitballing.

MALONE: Spitballing.

The trash problem was a huge problem, but it was not all Wayne's fault. The way this program was written up required that these vouchers go out in January of 2017. That was 10 months before the actual election.

KLIFF: But as reports started to come in that maybe this is a bigger problem than you thought, Wayne and his office said, OK, we're going to run a campaign to remind people there is a way to replace lost vouchers.

MALONE: They printed up a bunch of posters that looked like somebody had lost a dog, except, instead of a dog, there was a picture of Democracy Vouchers.

KLIFF: And then a pro-Democracy Voucher group also made some ads about lost vouchers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That's my human. She's looking for Democracy Vouchers.

MALONE: This ad was also dog-themed. It featured a talking French bulldog in a red vest that stands around explaining how to replace your lost Democracy Vouchers while the dog's owner digs through the couch cushions for her lost vouchers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) But she's not going to find them because I ate them (burping). But it's not a big deal. All she has to do is call 206...

MALONE: It's so good. It's so good. What is up with all the dog ads in Seattle, though? I don't understand.

KLIFF: You know, Kenny, we just - we know a good dog when we see one.

MALONE: Yeah, fair enough.

It took a lot of work, but Seattle eventually dealt with the lost voucher problem - the advertisements, of course. But they also gave Jon and Teresa a way to show up at people’s doors and help them replace lost vouchers on the spot.

KLIFF: And that meant Jon and Teresa were collecting serious money. Remember, the first time Jon ran, before Democracy Vouchers, he only raised about $75,000.

GRANT: That entire year, I didn't have a staff. It was just me.

MALONE: But in 2017, Jon raised $300,000 in Democracy Vouchers.

GRANT: I had a campaign manager. I had a field director. I had field organizers. And, you know, we knocked on 50,000 doors, and that's a lot of one-on-one conversations with real voters.

MALONE: And Jon's opponent, Teresa Mosqueda - remember, she was a first-time candidate. She was still paying off her student loans. She was brand-new to this stuff. And yet, she also managed to raise $300,000 in Democracy Vouchers.

MOSQUEDA: So if you - actually, I can show you this chart that shows how much money came in.

KLIFF: She showed me this chart so I could see how little of her own money she had to put into the campaign.

MOSQUEDA: It's $361. So that is because I spent $250 of my own. I wrote a check to myself. I used a hundred of my Democracy Vouchers. And then there was an $11 Facebook ad that I put out (laughter). So that's where $361 is what I paid.

MALONE: After 10 months of Democracy Voucher problems and solutions, Election Day finally came, and the campaigns were over.

KLIFF: Teresa Mosqueda - she remembers being at her watch party, looking up at the TV.

MOSQUEDA: And it showed us at that night at 62 percent of the vote, and people were just jumping with joy, screaming, hugging each other. And then we had a mariachi band.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSQUEDA: It was amazing.

KLIFF: Was that your choice, or...

MOSQUEDA: Oh, hell, yeah.

MALONE: Teresa ended up beating Jon Grant. But, honestly, either of these candidates was a win for Democracy Vouchers.

KLIFF: Neither was an establishment politician. Neither could rely on a long list of rich donors. To fund their campaigns, they actually knocked on doors and met voters.

MALONE: Changing who runs for office, getting candidates out into the community - these were goals of the program. But, arguably, the most important metric was, did people actually use these vouchers? Were there more people donating to campaigns?

KLIFF: What is different about the number of people donating in Seattle now that you guys have Democracy Vouchers?

BARNETT: Well, the bottom line is it dramatically increased the number of campaign contributors.

KLIFF: Again, Wayne Barnett, the guy in charge of running the program.

BARNETT: It tripled. We had roughly 18,000 people who contributed.

MALONE: And, sure, that's a lot of people. But, as Sarah pointed out to Wayne, Seattle has 500,000 residents.

KLIFF: So I know it is true, Wayne, that it increased the number of contributors. But it's also true that 97 percent of people didn't use their Democracy Vouchers.

BARNETT: You know, it is - it's a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty thing. It's classic. On the one hand, we had more contributors than ever. On the other hand, we still did not have participation at the levels that the framers of the program had hoped. But I am a glass-half-full kind of guy.

MALONE: But I just - I want to drink the empty half of this glass, though...

BARNETT: (Laughter).

MALONE: ...Because, like, everyone got free money to give away. And, basically, nobody did it. Like, the vast majority didn't. That makes me feel worse about democracy.

BARNETT: Like I said, we increased our number of contributors dramatically. To me, that is a success. And I will readily admit, if it is in the third or fourth or fifth cycle of the program, if we are not seeing more participation than that, I think that might actually cut the other way.

KLIFF: All that being said, Wayne will admit there is a pretty reasonable critique of the program.

BARNETT: It is not a cheap program to run. There are a lot of costs associated with printing, mailing and processing these vouchers, which, hopefully, we can reduce once we get an electronic system in place. But I would tell you that it is not a cheap program to run.

MALONE: In 2017, Seattleites gave candidates about a million dollars in Democracy Vouchers. The administration of the whole program was also about a million dollars. That means half of the Democracy Voucher money went to administrative costs.

KLIFF: And those are taxpayer dollars that could fund other things, like schools or roads or affordable housing. As Wayne said, they are moving to an electronic system for the next election cycle, so that might cut down on some printing and mailing costs. But first, they have to build the electronic system, and that costs even more money.

MALONE: So Wayne admits there are definitely trade-offs.

BARNETT: Right, yeah. But, I mean, I think the question is, is your municipality - are they willing to pay to get more people involved in the political process? Seattle made the decision that we're willing to pay for that good. But I think that's every...

KLIFF: Don't expect, like, a free ride.

BARNETT: Right, exactly.

MALONE: Seattle appears to have weighed the pros and cons for itself and has decided Democracy Vouchers are worth it. There will be some tweaks, but the city is going to continue with the program.

KLIFF: And one final quick story about why Seattle might've decided this was a success. It is true that not as many people used the vouchers as the city hoped, but a lot of the people who did use the vouchers - they're the kind of people who don't have a lot of power in American politics. They were able to exercise their voice in a totally new way. There was this one woman I met in Seattle who really drove this point home for me. Her name is Gina Owens (ph).

GINA OWENS: And I'm 60 years young.

KLIFF: Gina had been politically active for years. She worked on housing and health care issues. But before 2017, Gina had never donated to a campaign. She's on disability. She takes care of her three grandkids.

OWENS: So right now, my finances are under $2,000 a month. Then raising three kids, no. There was no way I was going to find that hundred dollars anywhere.

KLIFF: If you did, I'm guessing it was not going to...

OWENS: It would not go to a candidate.

KLIFF: When Gina got her Democracy Vouchers, she took them to a candidate forum. She wanted to give them to Jon Grant.

OWENS: Actually, I kind of made a big deal out of it.

KLIFF: She waited until the forum was over.

OWENS: Walked up to the podium where they were all sitting and gave him my two vouchers.

KLIFF: So how did it make you feel to have the opportunity to do that for the first time?

OWENS: Like Bill Gates.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE E. SANCHEZ JR. AND JOSE E. SANCHEZ SR. SONG, "LA TRAICION")

MALONE: Got a policy experiment you think we should know about? You can hit us up at planetmoney@npr.org. We are also on Twitter and Instagram, @planetmoney. And if you want to hear about other wild policy experiments that other cities are using to solve big challenges, you should absolutely check out the new season of Sarah Kliff's podcast, The Impact.

KLIFF: Thanks, Kenny. Yeah. My colleagues and I at Vox have spent the past year crisscrossing the country, looking at places like Seattle, South Carolina, Vermont that have tried doing something radically different. And we see what happens next. You can find The Impact wherever you listen to your podcasts. Our new season starts today.

MALONE: Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. Bryant Urstadt is our editor. This episode was produced by PLANET MONEY's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and Vox's Byrd Pinkerton and Jillian Weinberger. We also had editing help from Amy Drozdowska.

KLIFF: I'm Sarah Kliff.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE E. SANCHEZ JR. AND JOSE E. SANCHEZ SR. SONG, "LA TRAICION")

MALONE: You know, one of the interesting things about the actual design of these Democracy Vouchers is that there's a little bit of language that is, like, a subtle reminder that actually selling these vouchers is a big no-no. Wayne Barnett told us that it was expressly illegal and, in fact, that he and his team thought a lot about just how much they should remind people of that fact.

BARNETT: I think the balance we were trying to strike was between that desire to deter fraud and also the competing desire to have people use their vouchers without fear.

MALONE: Right. Like, there's a version where you send someone this wonderful Democracy Voucher, but it's just - in giant print, it's like, don't mess this up. You're going to jail. And people are like, nope.

BARNETT: (Laughter) Exactly.

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