Brian J. McCabe, associate professor of sociology at Georgetown, and Jennifer Heerwig, assistant professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, use a Massive Data Institute (MDI) Seed Grant to research the impact of a new program on Seattle’s campaign finance system.
McCabe and Heerwig’s project, “The Seattle Voucher Experiment: Using Big Data to Enhance Local Democracy” project examines how the Democracy Voucher program in Seattle aims to increase participation in financing local elections and diversify the racial composition of the donor pool and campaign contributors in local elections.
Seattle is the first city in the United States to implement this type of public financing program that provides vouchers to every registered voter in the city.
The sociologists merged data on Seattle voters and their vote history from the Washington Secretary of State with campaign finance and voucher records from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. They also used demographic data on registered voters provided by Catalist, and geographic information from the 2016 American Community Survey.
Their findings indicate that the Democracy Voucher program contributed to an increase in the number of residents participating in the campaign finance system. In total, 20,727 Seattle residents – about four percent – returned their vouchers, which is more than twice the number that contributed cash to a local political candidate in the previous election. But while the residents who used their vouchers are more representative of the electorate than cash donors, they are not fully representative. Although the Democracy Voucher program aimed to diversify the donor pool, donors in the voucher program are still older and wealthier than the electorate.
This research offers insights for leaders of the Seattle Elections and Ethics Commission to improve outreach for the program, as well as for other municipal leaders considering a similar type of program. Many other cities, including Washington, DC, have recently reformed their local campaign finance systems in an effort to diversify the donor pool. McCabe and Heerwig have recently published a policy brief with the University of Washington titled Expanding Participation in Municipal Elections: Assessing the Impact of Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program, and a report at the Brennan Center for Justice titled Democracy Vouchers Broadened Seattle's 2017 Donor Base. They will continue to evaluate the impacts of Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program in future elections.
McCabe’s research interests investigate the structures that contribute to social inequality, especially in American cities. He combines his training in sociology, geography, and public policy to investigate housing policy and other urban issues.
Heerwig’s research examines the American campaign finance system and political inequality. She is interested in how individual donors allocate their monetary contributions in national elections and what these patterns tell us about changes in donor motivations.