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COMMENTARY

Providence politics could be more inclusive and democratic with a campaign finance initiative like Seattle’s

Seattle’s transformative Democracy Voucher program has allowed ordinary citizens to impact elections as wealthy donors do, says school social worker Justin Roias

Providence City Hall.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Regardless of which ideology you align with or which side of the aisle you sit on, one fact has become indisputable: Money has transformed the political landscape and has become the lifeblood of United States politics. It is also the most statistically quantifiable difference between winning and losing.

According to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization committed to analyzing the impact of money on elections and public policy, in the 2020 election cycle, over 87 percent of House races and over 71 percent of Senate races were won by the candidate who spent the most money.

Fair elections are at the heart of any real democracy: A country cannot be truly democratic unless all its citizens can choose their representatives through free and fair elections. While it can be argued that elections in the United States are free, based on OpenSecrets’ astonishing data, it might be time to question the fairness of the process.

To be considered fair, ideally all candidates should have an equal opportunity to be nominated and elected. I’m running for Providence City Council to represent the North End. As a first-time candidate who comes from working-class ranks and lacks the connections and social capital to raise significant money to run a competitive race, I have quickly learned how far from that ideal we are. Statistically and historically speaking, big money in politics has created an uneven playing field, affording an unfair advantage to candidates with access to donors that others cannot reach. This also fuels the power of incumbency; once well-funded candidates are established in office, they are that much harder to unseat. This, by definition, is an undemocratic process. Fortunately, there are new and innovative ways to combat this alarming trend.

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In November 2015, Seattle voters passed an initiative that revolutionized how local campaigns are financed in the city. Debuted during the 2017 election cycle, the “Democracy Vouchers” program aims to offset the outsized influence of wealthy donors and corporations, supporting a more democratic process. Essentially, at the beginning of each election cycle the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, a nonpartisan and independent administrative city commission, delivers four $25 Democracy Vouchers to each registered voter in Seattle. Each voter can donate their vouchers as they please, either to a single candidate or distributed among several. And, according to a study from the University of Washington, the program is having the desired effect, citing a “53% increase in total contributions and a 350% increase in the number of unique donors.”

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The Seattle Democracy Voucher program is funded through 2025 with a $3 million-a-year property tax that costs the average Seattle homeowner approximately $8 per year. This is less than 0.2 percent of the $1.74 billion budgeted for the 2022 General Fund by the Seattle City Budget Office.

In Providence, the interests of real estate developers and wealthy individuals have propelled mayoral and city council politics for decades, and by extension, public policy in our city. Given the success of the Democracy Voucher program in Seattle, a similar program in Providence could be as effective in making our city’s politics more inclusive, more democratic.

This is a radical plan to push back against big money in politics, one I will fight vigorously to achieve in Providence if I am elected to City Council. It is an initiative that has been vetted, and it is working. If implemented at a scale similar to Seattle’s, the cost to Providence taxpayers would be minimal, given the city’s $568 million budget established for FY2023.

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This politically transformative program has allowed ordinary citizens to impact elections like wealthy donors do. Meanwhile, the cost to the taxpayers is insignificant, especially given the benefits of greater representation and policy decision making. It is a revolutionary and innovative change to campaign finance that will result in elections that are more representative of constituents as a whole. It will increase voter turnout, limit political action committee influence, and ensure that more candidates can communicate their message and agenda.

There has been a lot of dialogue over the past several years about the sustainability of our country’s democratic values. This program offers a viable and tested method toward a democracy more indicative of the will of the entire community. It must be considered in cities around the country, including and especially the City of Providence.

Justin Roias is a school social worker, licensed mental health counselor, and candidate for Providence City Council.