At almost every talk I give about Honest Elections Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers, a subset of the audience quickly convinces itself that fraud, forgery, abuse, and gaming will run rampant. They imagine campaigns or astroturf organizers or straight-up hoodlums roaming the neighborhoods, buying vouchers for $5 apiece. Or they imagine apartment managers raiding mailboxes, extracting vouchers and submitting them. Or they imagine forgers or hackers flooding the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission with flotillas of bogus campaign coupons.

It’s not a baseless fear: where money and politics are concerned, cynicism is understandable. Fortunately, in this case, it is not justified. Voucher shenanigans are likely to be rare; cheating is going to be a modest, even trivial, problem, for three reasons.

  1. Honest Elections Seattle makes it a gross misdemeanor to buy, sell, trade, forge, steal, or otherwise misuse vouchers. It’ll be like buying votes: the kind of crime that can land you in prison. Not worth the risk! Vote buying, like other forms of voter fraud, is as uncommon as five-leaf clovers. Besides, to assign a voucher, you have to sign an affidavit on the voucher. It’s a lot like the signature block on ballot envelopes in Oregon and Washington. So add perjury to your rap sheet.
  2. Honest Elections Seattle includes big penalties for campaigns that benefit from such tomfoolery. If their agents participate in anything shady with vouchers, the campaigns themselves may have to give their public money back. Again, not worth the candle.
    “Honest Elections Seattle makes voucher assignments transparent for the whole world to see.”
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  3. Honest Elections Seattle makes voucher assignments transparent for the whole world to see, online or in the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) office. Every voucher is a public record. You can check that yours went where intended. You can check for suspicious patterns of voucher assignments. Reporters, whistleblowers, and opposing campaigners can see who’s giving vouchers to whom—and ask questions. Did anyone come around waving $5 bills or offering free drinks? Transparency plus adversarial campaigns make fraud unlikely. It’s like a game of cards with your hand turned up: boring but cheat-proof.

Plumbers? Hackers?

What about an elaborate and sophisticated heist? Maybe someone will break into the SEEC office, Watergate-style, or hack into its database to divert vouchers to the wrong campaign. Well, maybe. But remember, the entire voucher system will be public record. Even if thieves managed to steal or destroy all the originals, every voter will know where her vouchers were supposed to go. Every campaign will have a list of who gave it vouchers. The state Public Disclosure Commission will have reports from campaigns and SEEC of all voucher assignments: they’re required by state law. And SEEC will surely keep off-site backups and duplicates of its data. Besides, any campaign that got rich during a real or virtual SEEC break-in would look awfully suspicious.

“Transparency plus adversarial campaigns make fraud unlikely. It’s like a game of cards with your hand turned up: boring but cheat-proof.”

Fears of hackers diminish when you remember that the voucher system is simplicity itself. You could run it with a set of accordion files and a spreadsheet on a computer that, Battlestar Galactica-style, is not networked at all. More likely, SEEC will turn to one of the gift-card or online-voting companies that do such things for a living: verify identities, assign gifts/ballots, ensure transparency, encrypt against hackers. Will such an endeavor be a fiasco like Healthcare.gov? Not likely in the hometown of Amazon.com. Completing 500-1,000 daily voucher assignments, each with a unique serial number and voter ID, to one of 10 or 20 candidates, all of whom are watching closely, is a simple task. Healthcare reform this is not. Even if it were, in the Evergreen State, the online health insurance marketplace worked well.

Fraud-proof?

I am not saying that vouchers will be free of all legal irregularities. A friend mentioned the other day that his wife lets him complete her absentee ballots. She signs them, but he votes them. What they do is against the law, but it’s no fundamental threat to democracy. The same kind of thing may happen with vouchers: a twenty-something phones home and asks his mom to sign his vouchers for him and send them in; a friend assigns a roommate’s vouchers to the candidate they both admire while the roommate is traveling.

  • I am not saying that vouchers are fraud-proof. I am saying that systemic, widespread voucher fraud is a remote possibility. The potential campaign cash gained isn’t worth the legal risks, either for individuals or campaigns, and the whole exercise—trying to game a transparent, public, redundant system—is a fool’s errand.

    Not fraud-proof, then, but fraud-repellent. That’s what Democracy Vouchers are.