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Ruth Cain’s new idea: Adopt Seattle model of using ‘democracy vouchers’ to fund campaigns

Ruth Cain is a hero of mine. If you are looking for a life of meaningful and progressive activism, look no further. The list of Ruth’s organizational accomplishments is a lengthy one. And now, at age 82, Ruth is backing a powerful new idea.

More about that soon; but first, some background:

Ruth Cain

Ruth graduated from the University of Minnesota in only three-plus years and made the Dean’s List. This despite a half-hour lecture from her adviser (a psychology professor) on what a waste of the state’s money it was to educate women. She of course ignored that comment and then jumped into a life of advocacy by participating in peace demonstrations and implementing an equal rights survey.

With the advent of the Vietnam War, Ruth helped to organize the antiwar movement in Minnesota and worked for the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy in 1968. She nonetheless allowed the Humphrey campaign to share office space in her legislative district. She then ran the 4th Congressional District DFL office as its office manager, and in 1972 she was elected associate chair of the DFL party.

Voter registration reform

As associate chair she butted heads with Tom Kelm, Gov. Wendell Anderson’s powerful chief of staff, who unsuccessfully attempted to reduce the associate chair to a part-time position. Ruth headed the DFL voter registration task force (with a $50 budget) in 1972, but she still managed to lead the effort for voter registration reform in Minnesota by persuading Gov. Anderson to appoint a bipartisan task force. That led to legislation extending Election Day registration and registration by mail statewide.

Her work for proportional representation in caucuses and conventions in Minnesota meant a fairer way of selecting delegates. She authored a precinct action handbook, wrote an affirmative action plan for the DFL, and promoted a minority caucus at the 1976 DFL state convention. Her extensive efforts led to her being elected to the DFL Hall of Distinguished Service in 2003. While working for the City of Minneapolis from 1983 to 2000, her activities included organizing and managing a mentoring program for low-income youth and organizing and managing a program to help the unemployed to get and keep jobs.

On the personal side, Ruth also managed to raise three children. She has written and illustrated several children’s stories and is an accomplished artist, with sales of her work to prove it. Ruth, a widow, was married to Blue Carstenson, an activist in his own right, and who has been credited for leading the successful lobbying for the passage of Medicare. As a strong feminist, Ruth supported the organization of the DFL feminist caucus. Recently, Ruth joined Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections, a new nonpartisan nonprofit that seeks to promote the will of the people over the power of money.

The Seattle model

George Beck

And her new idea? At her Minneapolis DFL precinct caucus on April 4, Ruth offered a resolution asking the City of Minneapolis to establish an election voucher system like that set up in the City of Seattle and that has been adopted by the State of Maine. Seattle issues four $25 “democracy vouchers” to each registered voter in the city. The voter then can distribute them to the municipal candidates of their choice. The candidates then use the vouchers to finance campaign activities. Ruth’s resolution passed overwhelmingly and she was elected a delegate to move on to the Ward 10 convention.

Ruth observed that “a very effective way to keep political contributions from determining political outcomes is public financing. The voucher program is a very modest step in that direction, but a valuable one. It will mean that municipal officials will be encouraged to look to the entire electorate rather than large contributors and it will inspire more citizens to participate in elections at a time of voter cynicism.” Ruth also believes that free media time for candidates would be an important change to lower the cost of campaigning.

The Seattle model, which is being implemented this year after a 2015 approval by voters, will allow candidates to finance their campaigns from small donors rather than the wealthy or companies that do business with the city. It will likely also free candidates from traditional fundraising and thereby encourage people to become candidates who see fundraising as a negative for running for public office. A voucher system will help to create a more participatory democracy in a city. It has been observed that perceptions of unequal influence reduce electoral engagement. Imagine a city in which the interests of all citizens are the concern of its leaders. That’s an exciting prospect. Thank you Ruth!

George Beck is the chair of Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Sean O'Brien on 06/01/2017 - 09:50 am.

    Cool Idea

    This is interesting. I’m certainly in favor of taking the big money out of politics. I’d like to know some more details but this is something I would strongly consider supporting as a delegate at the Minneapolis DFL convention.

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