Mind the (Participation) Gap: Vouchers, Voting, and Visibility

AuthorAbby K. Wood,Christopher S. Elmendorf,Douglas M. Spencer,Nicholas G. Napolio
Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2022, Vol. 50(5) 623642
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211067256
Mind the (Participation) Gap: Vouchers,
Voting, and Visibility
Abby K. Wood
, Christopher S. Elmendorf
, Douglas M. Spencer
and Nicholas G. Napolio
This study exploits the introduction of a new type of public f‌inancing of electionscampaign f‌inance vouchersto estimate the
effects of neighborhood-level political cross-pressure on citizensdecisions to participate in low-cost political activities which
vary in their publicness: voting (private) and vouchering (public). Does proximity to ideologically divergent neighbors affect
ones use of publicly disclosed campaign f‌inance vouchers? We f‌ind that cross-pressured individuals are slightly more likely to use
a campaign f‌inance voucher than similarly situated individuals who are ideologically typical for their precinct. We also f‌ind
evidence that precinct-level cross-pressure does not drive voucher users to shade their voucher donations toward candidates
who are ideologically closer the precinct mean. While our study is limited to a relatively liberal city (Seattle), our results
replicated across two election cycles in that city, and our methods can easily be extended to future elections. Finally, our f‌indings
raise questions about the empirical assumptions that have shaped the development of campaign f‌inance jurisprudence since
Campaign f‌inance, disclosure, vouchers, political cross-pressure, matching
Most campaign f‌inance regimes in the United States require
public disclosure of private contributions to candidates in
excess of a modest threshold ($200 in federal elections, less in
many state and local elections). Critics of mandatory dis-
closure argue that it chills individuals from exercising their
First Amendment right to speak and associate through the
contribution of money to candidates, and that this chilling
effect is particularly likely to occur among political minor-
ities. Disclosure is said to muff‌le the voices of people who
would otherwise contribute to the marketplace of ideas. In
recognition of this risk, the U.S. Supreme Court requires
disclosure exemptions for donors to minor parties and to
independent candidates when there is a demonstrable risk of
harassment. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 6474 (1976).
Whether disclosure chills political participation is an
empirical question (Wood, 2018). The relationship between
disclosure and participation is diff‌icult to untangle because no
extant disclosure regime was randomly assigned or otherwise
rolled out in a fashion that would allow researchers to isolate
plausibly comparable treatmentand controlgroups. Nor
can researchers make headway on the question using a
discontinuity design because donations below disclosure
thresholds are not observed. In this study, we attempt to shed
some new light on this old and diff‌icult question by
leveraging an innovative local campaign f‌inancing program.
Although small-dollar public funding programs have been
advocated for decades (see, e.g., Ackerman & Ayres, 2002;
de Figueiredo & Garrett, 2005;Foley, 1994;Hasen, 1996;
Overton, 2004), the f‌irst publicly funded system of campaign
f‌inance vouchers was adopted only recently, by the city of
Seattle, Washington. Each registered voter receives four $25
vouchers, which may be assigned to candidates running for
local off‌ice. The vouchers are accompanied by information
about disclosure of the voucher contributions (Appendix A).
Candidates who wish to redeem vouchers agree to various
restrictions on private fundraising and demonstrate their
viability by raising small private donations. Research con-
current with ours has shown that Seattles voucher program
expanded the campaign f‌inance donor pool (McCabe &
Heerwig, 2018), though not yet to the extent that
University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
University of California, Davis, Davis, CA, USA
University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA
University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Abby K. Wood, University of Southern California Gould School of Law, 699
Exposition Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0001, USA.
Email: awood@law.usc.edu
advocates have promised.
Because all voucher contributions
are publicly disclosed, Seattles program allows us to analyze
the effects of political cross-pressure on the decision to assign
campaign f‌inance vouchers.
Important to our research design, Seattles voucher
program equalizes the personal f‌inancial costs of voting
and contributing money (up to the voucher amount). Both
votes and vouchers can be assigned by mail or by waiting
in line, and without payment of a fee. Yet,the privacy costs
of voting and vouchering are very different. Seattle does
not record, let alone release, information about which
candidate received the vote of which voter, whereas
vouchering is public in exactly this way. Because voting
and vouchering both provide support to the candidate on
the receiving end, and because both forms of support can
be provided at negligible cost to the voter, we would
expect eligible individuals to make the same participate-
or-abstain decision with respect to both political re-
sourcesif voting and vouchering were equally public, if
the choice sets were identical, and if voters were equally
knowledgeable about both programs. See Tabl e 1.How-
ever, the latter two conditions were not satisf‌ied in the
2017 Seattle election. The voucher program was brand
new (so citizens probably knew less about it than they
knew about voting), and candidates in the highest prof‌ile
race on the ballot (mayor) were not eligible to receive
vouchers. Moreover, spending limits and limited appro-
priations for the voucher program may have discouraged
candidates from mobilizing voucher contributions with
the same gusto that they mobilize votes.
Due to some
combination of these factors, we observe a large baseline
participation gap. The citywide rate of participation by
vouchering was approximately 4.5% in 2017 (up from 1 to
2% in the fully private system), and the voter turnout rate
was 63%.
Our goal in this paper is to assess whether variations in the
participation gap may be explained by neighborhood-levelcross-
pressure. Our strategy is to test whether voucher use varies
systematically between individuals who are ideologically similar
to their neighbors and individuals who are local political outliers,
relative to baseline rates of turnout. Put differently, we estimate
the treatment effect of neighborhood ideological cross pressure
on registered votersprivate (votes) and public (vouchers) po-
litical participation decisions.
We use two matching strategies to estimate the effect of
neighborhood cross-pressure on voting and vouchering. In the
f‌irst analysis, registered voters in the treatment group (distant
from their neighborhoods ideological mean) and registered
voters in the control group (similar to their ne igh bor hoo ds
ideological mean) are matched on ideology and on a
measure of their propensity to participate in politics. For
the second analysis, which was not pre-registered, we do
not match on ideology, in effect treating ideologically
moderate Seattleites as counterfactuals for extremists
(conditional on their propensity to participate in politics).
We added the second design, which rests on much stronger
assumptions, after discovering that there is little variance
in the mean ideology of neighborhoods in Seattle. This
means that the treatment dose in our pre-registered design
is very smallthe registered voters classif‌ied as distant
from their neighborhood mean are in reality fairly close to
it, just not as close as those who are classif‌ied as typical.
Results from both designs are similar and do not support the
hypothesis that neighborhood-level cross-pressure causes local
political outliers to participate less in public (vouchering) relative
to private (voting) political activity. The observed effects of
neighborhood-level dissonance on voting and vouchering are
both very small and, if anything, local political outliers are less
likelytovotebutmore likely to voucher than otherwise similar
registered voters who are not local outliers. This cuts against the
conventional wisdom about the supposed chilling effect of
disclosure. We replicated our design on data from the 2019
election and f‌ind similar results for vouchering among politically
cross-pressured voters, when compared to population matches
who were not cross-pressured.
Wealso estimate the effect of neighborhood cross-pressure on
donorschoice of voucher recipients. Among pairs of voters
matched on ideology and propensity to participate, we f‌ind that
those who are neighborhood cross-pressured are less likely to
give to candidates whose ideology is similar to the donorsown
ideology. Oddly, though, the vouchers assigned by these cross-
pressured voters are not more likely to go to candidates who are
close to the ideological mean of their neighborhood, relative to
the vouchers assigned by the matched-pair voter in the control
group. Thus, while cross-pressure appears to have some effect on
the choice of whom to contribute, it is not the social-conformity
(homophily) effect we hypothesize.
Our study is limited to a relatively liberal city (Seattle), and
it remains to be seen whether our f‌indings will generalize to
other jurisdictions. But because we f‌ind no evidence of
chilling or neighborhood-conformity effects, our results
suggest that courts should be cautious about imposing an
anonymity requirement on voucher programs.
Cross-Pressure, Ideology, and Campaign
Finance Participation
Some people are embedded in ideologically congenial social
networks. Other people are political minorities within their
Table 1. Comparison of Different Modes of Political Participation.
Costly Free
Public Private campaign Vouchers
Private Voting
Note. Campaign f‌inance vouchers allow us to compare political participation
in two free activities, one of which is public (voucher donation) and one of
which is private (voting).
624 American Politics Research 50(5)

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