More Cities Want to Embrace ‘Democracy Vouchers’

In 2017, Seattle rolled out “democracy vouchers”—a program through which it would give eligible residents vouchers totaling $100 to donate to the local candidate of their choice. Candidates who opted in to the program had to agree to strict guidelines on how to spend the money they received. The idea behind the pilot was that giving the equivalent of money to constituents who don’t usually have the resources to support their candidates—pensioners and the homeless, for example—would spur greater political participation. And, ideally, it would also help mitigate the vast influence wealthy campaign donors have on local elections.

Now, the idea is picking up speed in other cities, with Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Austin, Texas, planning to put it to vote in ballot initiatives come November.

Why? Well, for one, they see Seattle’s program, approved in 2015 and funded through a 10-year property tax, as a success. At least by some measures, it has been: A recent analysis of the outcomes by two liberal policy organizations concluded that the initiative boosted participation among younger and lower-income voters, and also created a more ethnically diverse group of voters in the local elections last year. Although a previous Seattle Times examination found that it was not successful in keeping big money out of the election. A Brennan Center for Justice analysis also found that while it was true that the voucher users were significantly more economically diverse, they also reflected the overall political participation in the city: voucher use was greater for older, white, and middle- and high-income voters.

Yet low-income voters who did participate said they appreciated the opportunity: “It feels like I’m more a part of the system,” one voucher user told the Seattle Times in 2017. “People like me can contribute in ways that we never have before. We can participate in ways that Big Money always has.”

Albuquerque presents a particularly interesting site to replicate Seattle’s experiment. In 2005, this city was the second after Tucson to approve a mechanism to publicly finance local candidates, with 70 percent of voters in favor. Through this program, eligible candidates get $1 per voter in their constituency, out of a fund carved out of the city budget every year. (To qualify, among other criteria, the candidates had to eschew private donations). They were also entitled to additional funds to compete with privately financed opponents, but that part of the program was struck down by the Supreme Court, in a lawsuit against a similar campaign finance law in Arizona in 2011.

Over time, it became increasingly unfeasible for publicly financed candidates in Albuquerque to compete with those who accepted money from big spenders. In 2017’s election, private money played a huge role. Tim Keller—who is now mayor—was the only candidate who used the city’s public financing mechanism, although, he, too, got outside help from an independent political financing group (the city’s version of a PAC). That’s one of the main reasons the coalition of local activists have been pushing for Albuquerque’s version of “democracy vouchers,” or “’Burque Bucks” as they’re being called: It will enable a candidate to be competitive relying solely on public money next time around, said , New Mexico state director of the Working Families Party, who has been advocating for campaign finance reform.

The other problem Griego sees in Albuquerque is that political participation does not reflect the demographics of the electorate. The city is 60 percent people of color and 40 percent white, but its city council is two-thirds white. And according to estimates by Common Cause, Working Families Party, and other members of the coalition advocating for reform, “fewer than 350 donors gave three quarters of all cash contributions, with the average from each individual amounting to about $3,000.”

“Every voter, every Albuquerque resident, should have an equal voice and that 350 people shouldn’t be able to determine who the next mayor is,” says Griego, who was a city councilor in 2005. “It should be the larger electorate—whether or not they can write a thousand dollar check.”

“Burque Bucks,” is a part of the fix, he adds. “We considered other proposals but this one seemed to be the right balance between making public finance candidates more viable and broadening the electorate,” he said.

So far, Griego and other activists have collected the petition signatures required to qualify “Burque Bucks” as a ballot initiative. If they pass the rest of the procedural hurdles, it will be on the ballot come November. If it passes, the program will aim to give voters a $25 voucher to donate to their publicly financed candidate—a quarter of what Seattle voters get.

“We’re not anywhere near as wealthy as Seattle, we’re not as big, and we’re probably not as progressive,” Griego said. “We’ve modified [the program] to fit the economics and demographics of Albuquerque.”

Campaign finance reform became a key issue during the 2016 presidential election. It was elevated in large part by Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders, who was himself propelled by small, individual donations from across the country. That same year, South Dakota and Washington state passed versions of “democracy vouchers,” as part of larger anti-corruption packages favored by voters. Both immediately received pushback, explains Vox’s Lee Drutman. In the case of South Dakota, a judge blocked the ethics overhaul of which the vouchers were a part, and then the Republican state legislature ended up repealing it altogether.

Seattle’s measure also faced legal obstacles after a libertarian law firm sued on behalf of property owners. Citing Supreme Court precedent, it argued that the program was “grossly inefficient, wasted taxpayer money,”and violated the First Amendment because residents’ taxes were going to fund candidates they didn’t support. These arguments are along the lines of what Albuquerque activists are hearing from opponents, and what proponents of “democracy vouchers” have always come up against.

In a 2011 op-ed in The New York Times, for example, Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Harvard, vouched for democracy voucher programs saying, “It’s also my money, or your money, used to support the speech that we believe: this is not a public financing system that forces some to subsidize the speech of others.” In response, a Cato Institute blog post called his argument “old wine in new bottles, barely masking the fact that it puts the government in the business of promoting political speech.”

In the case of Seattle, lawyers and political experts predicted that the libertarian argument wasn’t likely to stand in court, and so far they’ve turned out to be right. In November 2017, a Superior Court judge upheld Seattle’s program, ruling that it was a “viewpoint neutral method” for achieving political participation. In other words, it did not violate free speech rights, but corrected for an existing imbalance.

“I happen to not believe money is speech, but if you believe money is speech then he who has more money has more speech,” Griego said.

Add to that the recent surge of progressive candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York—whose campaign has also relied largely on small, individual campaign donations of less than $200—and the stage is set for local efforts to reform campaign finance: People know it’s possible to beat the political machine.

The attempts to get “democracy vouchers” on the books in Albuquerque and Austin follow efforts by local governments including those in Maryland, Oregon, and California to tweak campaign finance at the local level. Even Missouri, a state that typically votes conservative, hopped on the bandwagon. In New York, there are calls to use the city’s ongoing charter revision to strengthen public financing mechanisms further. Given that campaign finance laws at the national level are already leaky, and may be further weakened in the future, activists are hopeful that change fans out from the city-level.

“A lot of the real reform on a lot of issues—but certainly in campaign finance—is happening at the local level,” Griego said.

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Climate Report: Not Good

For the past 28 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) has published a “State of the Climate” report, an exhaustive accounting of the planet’s vital signs and weather-related trends for every region worldwide. But this year’s installment of the 310-page report, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society with contributions from 524 scientists in 65 countries, feels a little different, according to NOAA’s Derek Arndt, one of the report’s three lead editors.

“When I started as the lead of this report, we were documenting global temperature and ocean heat content and all of the numbers like you would get in an annual physical,” said Arndt, who’s worked on the last nine years worth of reports. “Now we’re documenting things like loss of coral reef, coastal erosion, and inland flooding—things that are actually tangible and visible and affect the quality of our collective lives.”

What’s changed in a decade, he added, is that what were once worrisome warning signs have blossomed into full-blown manifestations of a warming world. “The symptoms—the direct interruptions of our lives—are just much more observable than they were 10 years ago,” he said.

That conclusion should not exactly come as a shock—not when the biggest wildfire in the history of California fails to rank as “the week’s worst climate news.” (That would be the “Hothouse Earth” scenario you may have been hearing about.) But the portrait of the planet that the BAMS report draws as the Anthropocene epoch picks up speed is still plenty disturbing: The year saw record-high sea levels and upper ocean temperatures and new lows in sea ice at the top and bottom of the world. Coral reefs had “unprecedented” damage from June 2014 to May 2017, leaving more than 95 percent of coral dead in some reef areas. Greenhouse gas concentrations reached record levels in 2017: The average global level of carbon dioxide last year was the highest ever measured in the modern global record (the past 38 years) and in other records going back as long as 800,000 years.

A graph shows the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. (Blunden, J., D. S. Arndt, and G. Hartfield, Eds., 2018: State of the Climate in 2017. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 99 (8), Si–S332, doi:10.1175/2018BAMSStateoftheClimate.1. ©American Meteorological Society. Used with permission.)

Depending on the dataset used, 2017 was either the second- or third-warmest year in history, but the hottest non-El Niño year on record. Land and sea surface temperatures surpassed the 1981–2010 average throughout much of the globe.

The map and graph show 2017’s patterns of extreme heat. (Blunden, J., D. S. Arndt, and G. Hartfield, Eds., 2018: State of the Climate in 2017. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 99 (8), Si–S332, doi:10.1175/2018BAMSStateoftheClimate.1. ©American Meteorological Society. Used with permission.)

Overall, the report shows global temperatures ticking up 0.68–0.86 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1981–2010 average, part of a longer warming trend that has seen temperatures rise since 1975 at a rate of 2.7–3.2 degrees Fahrenheit per century. From 1901 to 1975, the planet’s surface warmed at a rate of 1.3–1.6 degrees Fahrenheit per century—meaning the rate of global temperature rise has almost doubled since 1975.

A map shows the 2017 global temperature’s difference from the 1981-2010 average. (Blunden, J., D. S. Arndt, and G. Hartfield, Eds., 2018: State of the Climate in 2017. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 99 (8), Si–S332, doi:10.1175/2018BAMSStateoftheClimate.1. ©American Meteorological Society. Used with permission.)

For the planet’s urban dwellers, the most alarming findings involve both rising global temperatures and sea levels, as well as the increase in inland flooding.

“The overall trend of a few degrees over a century may not seem like much,” said Arndt. “But the reality is that doesn’t happen evenly over every day or every place in the world. The ways it affects us, and particularly those of us who live in cities, are the extreme events get more extreme. They last longer, they are more intense, they are more frequent.” Indeed, this summer’s heat has claimed lives in cities unaccustomed to high temperatures in Canada, Northern Europe and Asia: “Just the last few weeks are a good example of the kind of heat waves that are becoming more common in a warming world.”

An urbanizing world is also one that’s increasingly vulnerable to rising seas: Eight of the ten largest cities in the world, including Tokyo, Mumbai, New York City, and Shanghai, are coastal, and an estimated 10 percent of the global population (and 40 percent of Americans) live in coastal areas. According to the report, global average sea levels in 2017 were the highest since satellite recording started in 1993. Global sea levels have been rising every year for the past six and in 22 of the last 24 years.

Global sea levels hit a record high in 2017. (Blunden, J., D. S. Arndt, and G. Hartfield, Eds., 2018: State of the Climate in 2017. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 99 (8), Si–S332, doi:10.1175/2018BAMSStateoftheClimate.1. ©American Meteorological Society. Used with permission.)

In 2017, the report tallied 16 “billion-dollar disasters” in the U.S.—weather and climate-related events like storms and floods that resulted in losses of over $1 billion. That added up to about $300 billion total in direct losses, the costliest year for total losses from billion-dollar disasters since tracking began in 1980. Among the extraordinary extreme weather events from 2017, the report singles out Hurricane Harvey—“the wettest known tropical cyclone to impact the United States”—for its “historic inland rainfall and flooding.” Harvey also came with a near-record price tag, with damages estimated by NOAA at $125 billion, second only to Katrina in 2005.

It’s notable that the financial toll of climate-related disasters have become part of the BAMS report’s annual accounting—a sign that monitoring a warming world means tracking direct economic costs, not just weather observations. “We’ve moved from an era in which the numbers are alarming into an era in which the symptoms are consequential,” Arndt said. “And unfortunately not unexpected.”

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Who Rents Their Home in America? Here’s What the Data Says.

Updated: 2018-08-08

America is, by and large, a nation of homeowners. Though more than 100 million Americans rent, they’re outnumbered two-to-one by Americans who own their own home, according to data from the U.S. Census.

And that’s nothing new. Americans have had high rates of homeownership for a long time, with only modest changes over the decades:

But the populations of homeowners and renters aren’t flat across the U.S. There’s one major group of Americans who are more likely to rent than own: people in their 20s.

Adults older than 30 are more likely to live in homes they own rather than rent, a likelihood that increases as they get older. Similarly, most children live in homes their parents own—though the youngest children are the most likely to live in rented housing.

Here’s that same graph again, but as percentages instead of raw numbers. Looking at it this way makes clear that, for example, the elderly aren’t drastically more likely to rent—there are just fewer of them.

This trend isn’t very surprising—it takes capital to buy a house, something many 20-somethings lack. And people in their 20s can be more mobile and less likely to be married with children.

The trend has also remained relatively stable for decades. But there has been some change in the age when people shift from renters to owners. In 1980, for example, young-adult Baby Boomers were much more likely to own a home than today’s young-adult Millennials. Even then, though, the 20s were the only ages when renters sometimes outnumbered owners:

“The generation of people who are now in their 20s and early 30s are moving into home ownership at roughly the same rates the Baby Boomers did. They’re just starting later,” said Susan Brower, Minnesota’s state demographer. “The whole curve gets shifted to a later period in time.”

The trend of Americans renting in their 20s also holds steady when controlling for other factors that affect homeownership. For example, residents of cities are much more likely than rural Americans to rent, regardless of their age. But both areas see a rise in renting among 20-somethings:

Similarly, lower-income Americans are much more likely to rent than wealthier Americans. Households earning less than $50,000 per year have a homeownership rate of around 45 percent, while nearly 80 percent of households earning more than $50,000 own.

The effect of income is drastic—but the shape of the pattern remains largely the same. In both rich and poor households, renting peaks in one’s 20s and rises steadily afterwards. The difference is that wealthy households are more likely to own than rent at all ages (they’re just least likely to own in their 20s). Lower-income Americans, meanwhile, don’t become majority-homeowners until nearly age 50. (One difference: the highest rate of renting among low-income individuals is in their early 20s, while renting maxes out among higher-income Americans in their late 20s.)

Kids in lower-income households typically live in rented housing, while richer kids tend to live in homes their parents or guardians own.

In addition to income, the Census data shows a pretty big homeownership gap based on race. Hispanic and black Americans own homes at significantly lower rates than do white and Asian/Pacific Islander Americans. That’s in line with other studies, such as a recent Harvard study finding 43 percent of black adults own homes compared to 72 percent of white adults.

Some, but not all, of this disparity is tied up with income. The median household income for black Americans is less than $40,000 per year, compared to more than $60,000 for white Americans. The Census data shows a relationship between homeownership and both race and income. Low-income households of all races are more likely to rent. But black households are less likely to own homes than white households in similar income bands:

The racial gap in homeownership has persisted over the decades. But in 2016, blacks were less likely to own homes at nearly every stage of life than they were in 2000 or 1980:

Marriage is also statistically linked to homeownership, with married individuals overwhelmingly more likely to own homes.

But the trend here is a little different. Americans who marry in their early 20s—well below the country’s median age at first marriage of around 28 for men and 26 for women—are actually more likely to rent than their single brethren.

Meanwhile, Americans who don’t marry break the trend of becoming homeowners in their 30s. Unmarried individuals are more likely to rent than own past age 40:

Turning to the oldest population of owners, one other thing has changed since the 1960s. Then, homeownership rates peaked around age 40 and stayed constant for older Americans, neither rising nor falling. Data from 1980, 2000, and 2016, on the other hand, show a curve with a peak and then a decline—though the age of peak homeownership has gotten later and later. This reflects many Americans moving in their 70s and 80s out of homes they own, whether because they choose to rent a more manageable apartment or move to assisted living facilities. See below how homeownership rates have declined among older Americans in recent decades.

This analysis is based on random samples of responses from the 1960, 1980, and 2000 U.S. Censuses, and the Census’ 2012-2016 American Community Survey. The combined dataset includes more than 22 million responses over the four time periods. Data was downloaded from the IPUMS-USA database at the University of Minnesota.

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The Micro-Mobility Revolution

The explosion of electric scooter services in the United States in 2018 took many by surprise — both in the public and private sectors. While many cities are working to determine how to develop policies and frameworks for managing this latest wave of transportation innovation, our study presents independent analysis on the adoption and perceptions of electric scooters to help guide mobility strategies.

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Motherboard Covers ILSR’s Broadband Monopolies Report

Motherboard Vice covers our latest report on Internet access. The report details why millions of Americans have no good option for high-quality Internet access, despite government subsidies. Karl Bode, spoke with Christopher Mitchell, the director for the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, for his perspective on what communities can do.… Read More

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CityLab Daily: Stopping White Supremacists From Taking Over an American City Again

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

A grim anniversary: It’s been almost a year since white supremacists tore through Charlottesville, torches blazing, for a “Unite the Right” rally that left one counter-protester dead. The reckoning of that rally—nationally and locally—isn’t over. A number of things have changed, though, from the removal of Confederate statues in more than 100 cities to the election of Charlottesville’s first black woman mayor.

But “preventing the next Charlottesville” isn’t as simple as resetting a city government and banning bad actors. While the Virginia college town’s legal challenge prevented a second rally, an anniversary rally is coming to Washington, D.C., this weekend, bringing all the security concerns for the city, the federal government, and even public transit. CityLab’s Sarah Holder reports on the fallout from last year’s violence, and the efforts taken since then to stop white supremacists from taking over an American city again.

Andrew Small

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Matthew McConaughey says everything is alright, alright, alright on Austin’s Capital Metro. (Harrison McClary/Reuters)

Yesterday, we shared our picks for which celebrities should voice public transit announcements, and asked for your ideas, too. It wasn’t a hot-train minute before readers delivered. Here are a few we loved from our inbox and on our social platforms:

  • Jeff H. from Sioux City wrote that fictional characters with unique voices, such as Elmer Fudd from Looney Toons or Roseanne Roseannadanna from SNL’s “Weekend Update,” would catch the attention of transit riders.
  • Merrill S. from Washington, D.C. suggested two calm-voiced icons: the naturalist broadcaster David Attenborough and beloved television personality Fred Rogers. (We have to imagine they could put you at ease, no matter how long of a delay they’re announcing.)
  • We also got great suggestions on Twitter and Facebook, including Matthew McConaughey for Austin, Jeff Bridges or Snoop Dogg for Los Angeles, and Dave Chappelle for D.C. The voiceover talents of Kristen Bell from Frozen and Holly Hunter from The Incredibles got nominations that any transit agency would be wise to commission.

Thanks to everyone who wrote in!

What We’re Reading

One year later, Charlottesville’s mayor wants conversations about race (NPR)

Cities’ offers to Amazon are secrets even to many city leaders (New York Times)

The future of urban transportation is… valet parking? (Curbed)

Asimov’s three rules of robotics, updated for drones in cities (Fast Company)

China dominates the list of cities with the fastest growing economies (Quartz)

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