Visiting Keene

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., answers a question from a member of the audience during a February meet-and-greet at The Community Kitchen in Keene.

Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand unveiled a campaign finance reform plan Wednesday that she says would reduce the corrosive influence of money in politics.

“I think most people, whether they’re a Democrat or Republican, have lost faith in government because of corruption and greed,” Gillibrand said in a phone interview Wednesday.

The New York senator’s “clean elections” plan would provide a voucher system as a public option for campaign donations, giving eligible voters the choice to opt into up to $600 per year in “Democracy Dollars” to spend on U.S. House, Senate and presidential elections.

Candidates would be able to accept the public money only if they cap individual donations at $200, down from $2,800 per election currently.

Gillibrand said she’s confident she can convince Granite State voters to support her plan.

“The way we want to pay for it is to close a loophole where the most wealthy CEOs in the country are getting tax breaks that only benefit the wealthy,” Gillibrand said. “... It’s all up to the people themselves. They choose whether to spend their ‘Democracy Dollars.’ They don’t have to spend them; they don’t have to use them.”

The loophole Gillibrand referred to allows for corporate tax deductions for some executive compensation, which the campaign said in a news release would be limited to fund the voucher program.

Gillibrand pointed to Seattle as a model for the plan. In 2017, a “democracy vouchers” program was implemented for municipal elections in Seattle, where half a million residents received $100 in vouchers.

The experiment saw donations of under $250 account for 87 percent of all donations in city elections that year, up from 48 percent in 2013.

While only 3.3 percent of residents who received the vouchers actually used them, those voters accounted for 71 percent of new donors in 2017. That year, the city spent $1 million to set up the program and saw $1.1 million in voucher donations, according to seattle.gov.

Seattle paid for its plan by raising $3 million in property taxes, and most of the cost of the program came down to the administrative expenses of building a new system from scratch, rather than the vouchers being cashed out.

Gillibrand said Seattle’s program broadens demographic participation in elections, with new donors accounting for 84 percent of all city residents who gave money in the 2017 municipal elections. That expansion on the national level, Gillibrand said, would bring in more young voters, as well as women and people of color.

While many candidates decry the influence of money in politics, Gillibrand said her proposal could level the playing field between wealthy and less affluent voters.

“We know that if we do this, we can then change the players list and overturn Citizens United, but to even get to that conversation, you need to empower voters and give them as loud a voice as the Koch brothers, who want to have more money in politics and not less,” Gillibrand said, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court decision that protected as a form of First Amendment speech unlimited campaign spending by businesses and interest groups.

Of the 20 candidates running for the Democratic nomination for president, Gillibrand was the first to release her 2018 tax returns. And as a rookie congresswoman from upstate New York, she was the first U.S. representative to post her meeting schedules and personal financial information to her office’s website, in an attempt to allow voters to determine whether they thought she had any conflicts of interest.

Were she to secure the nomination and defeat President Donald Trump in November 2020, Gillibrand said she’s under no illusions about how difficult it would be to pass such a sweeping proposal under the current campaign finance system.

“They’ll fight with every power of their being,” she said of lobbyists and special interests in Washington, D.C. “This will be a huge fight, but we know that money corrupts politicians. ... And people know there’s a quid pro quo with money in politics, and that’s why you have to get money out of politics.”

Jake Lahut can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or jlahut@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @JakeLahut.