The Irony of Voter Vouchers
The Missouri Record ran a column yesterday about “voter vouchers,” written by political science professor David Webber. He explains the program thusly:
Once a year, registered voters in Missouri should receive a voucher of between $25 and $50, which will allow them to contribute public funds to any candidate for a local or state elected office who has filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission. Vouchers should be redeemable in $10 denominations, allowing voters to spread their support among several candidates.
He writes in response to the recent Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance and corporations (an entirely different discussion, though one I believe was well-argued by Ilya Somin on the Volokh Conspiracy blog). Webber laudably hopes to increase citizen involvement, but voter vouchers wouldn’t accomplish that; in fact, they would likely cause more problems than they could potentially solve. After a discussion about voter vouchers with David Stokes and Audrey Spalding, we have come up with a number of arguments against them. I welcome any perspective, for or against, in the comment section.
1) Why would voter vouchers reduce apathy?
The main argument Webber uses in favor of voter vouchers is that they could combat voter apathy. I find it difficult to believe this would be the case. After all, the voucher would not be radically different from an ordinary vote, especially if each person is given an equal amount at no more of a (visible) cost to them than a vote would require. If a person cannot invest the time to research which candidate best aligns with his views and then head to the polls, why would giving him the potential “vote” of voucher money change his priorities? When somebody invests their own $50, there is far more incentive to research the candidates than when that same person is given $50 of “free” money.
2) Voter vouchers could potentially create a black market.
Voter vouchers would have a worth to some (campaign staff) that would likely exceed its worth to others (apathetic voters). This creates the potential for a black market to evolve, in which campaign staff trade, say, $30 in cash for the $50 vouchers. This would not increase voter involvement, but instead would intensify the very problems Webber was concerned with trying to solve. This could well foster a public-funded subsidy for campaigns that exists entirely independent of voter preferences, increasing ads and “media blitzes” by increasing funding to campaigns.
2) Votes are private; vouchers (and donations) are public.
Actual campaign donations (of a certain amount) are explicitly attached to the donor’s name. This is good for transparency, but a potential liability for those who might be publicly “expected” to allocate their money to a certain candidate or ballot issue, but privately wish to support a different candidate or issue. A vote cast is relatively private, but voter vouchers would not be. Even if the voucher donations were not made public in the same way that ordinary campaign donations are, such funding could be tracked in other ways that could increase an individual’s personal liability.
4) Public financing disproportionately helps incumbents.
Webber’s column in the Record pointed to Arizona and Maine as leaders in establishing public financing programs. But public financing does not decrease the influence of monied interests. In fact, a cap on expenditures aids the incumbent, who is already well-known and has “free” advertising in the form of thinly disguised constituent communication and favorable newspaper articles. Although voter vouchers would not necessarily lead to a prohibition of private donations, that would be the logical next step. On its own, this is not an argument against voter vouchers, but (in conjunction with the other arguments) it is an important consideration when considering any form of public financing.
5) Voter vouchers are funded by tax money that would be better spent elsewhere.
Webber estimates that it would cost, at maximum, $200 million to provide voter vouchers for the 4 million registered voters in Missouri. (This, of course, assumes that more people wouldn’t register to vote simply in order to benefit from a black market in voucher sales.) However you swing it, $200 million is a lot of money. It could be spent on any number of things (roads, schools, tax refunds) that would provide better public benefits than electoral campaigns would.
Voter apathy may or may not be a pressing problem, depending on one’s personal political philosophy, but voter vouchers are an unrealistic remedy. Even those who share a goal to increase citizen involvement should be wary of solutions that involve redistributing taxpayer money to candidates seeking public office. The repercussions of a voter voucher are too serious to ignore.