Gillibrand's First Major 2020 Proposal: Give Voters $600 Worth of 'Democracy Dollars'

Campaign doesn't say how much it would cost

Kirsten Gillibrand
Kirsten Gillibrand / Getty Images
May 1, 2019

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) has released a proposal she says will clean up American elections by allocating "Democracy Dollars" for voters to give to their desired candidates.

Under Gillibrand's proposal, those who wanted to participate could request up to $600 from the FEC and spend up to $200 each on House, Senate, and presidential races. They would only be allowed to donate to House and Senate races in their own state, although they could give to a House race outside their home district.

"Every U.S. citizen over 18-years-old may choose to request 'Democracy Dollars' from the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) for a given federal election cycle. For each federal race, the recipient will receive $200-worth of 'Democracy Dollars' - equally divided between the primary ($100) and general election ($100) - to spend in $10 increments on eligible candidates of their choosing," the plan states.

In a Medium post, Gillibrand called the idea "bold reform to attack the corrupting influence of money at its core."

The campaign didn't provide a cost for the plan but said it would pay for it by limiting a corporate deduction for corporate compensation. It claimed that measure would raise $60 billion over 10 years, according to NBC News. A total of $12.2 billion was spent by all candidates, parties and outside groups over the past two election cycles.

There were roughly 230 million eligible voters in 2016, meaning if they each requested $600, it would cost $138 billion.

Gillibrand's plan also stipulated that candidates could only be eligible to receive "Democracy Dollars" by agreeing to forgo contributions larger than $200 per donor. The current limit is $2,800 for a primary cycle and $2,800 for the general election.

She boasted in her plan that candidates would be "significantly limiting the number of people who can support their campaigns" if they didn't participate.

Gillibrand told NBC News that she believed candidates would opt into the plan because they would have the potential to take in "exponentially" higher donations.

"They would campaign in all communities," she said. "They would be going to low-income communities, they would be going to rural communities, they would be asking people to support them not only with a vote, but with (financial) support for their campaign."

A similar plan has been tried in Seattle, Wash., resulting in a more diverse donor class but still low overall participation:

Gillibrand's plan is modeled on a similar program in Seattle, which implemented a $25 voucher system for local elections in 2017 after voters passed it through a ballot initiative.

The early results were mixed, but not without some success. Small donors surged from 8,200 in 2015 to 25,000 in 2017, according to a report by the campaign finance advocacy group Every Voice, and the contributors tended to be younger and more diverse than traditional donors. Six candidates opted into the voucher system, one of whom won a city council seat, but donor participation in the program was still relatively low at 3.3 percent of eligible voters, even though the city mailed vouchers to their homes.

Fellow 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang has a voucher proposal also entitled "Democracy Dollars" to combat "unfettered spending in elections."

"The easiest way to do this is to provide Americans with publicly funded vouchers they can use to donate to politicians that they support," Yang's websites says. "Every American gets $100 a year to give to candidates, use it or lose it. These Democracy Dollars would, by the sheer volume of the US population, drown out the influence of mega-donors. It has been used in Seattle to great effect, and we can take their program national to move towards publicly funded elections."

Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig called Gillibrand's plan the "most ambitious" version he had seen so far. He worked with Rep. Ro Khanna (D., Calif.) on a version of the idea in 2017.

Gillibrand is currently at 0.4 percent support in the RealClearPolitics average of Democratic primary polling.