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'Democracy Dollars': Gillibrand's plan to give every voter $600 to donate to campaigns

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Image: Kirsten Gillibrand
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., addresses a gathering during a campaign stop at a coffee house in Dover, N.H., on April 5, 2019. -
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WASHINGTON — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., unveiled a plan on Wednesday to give every voter up to $600 in what she calls "Democracy Dollars" that they can donate to federal candidates for office.

In an exclusive interview with NBC News to discuss the roll out of her first major 2020 policy initiative, Gillibrand said her "Clean Elections Plan" would help reduce the influence of big money in politics.

"If you want to accomplish anything that the American people want us to accomplish — whether it's healthcare as a right, better public schools, better economy — you have to take on the greed and corruption that determine everything in Washington," she said.

Under Gillibrand's plan, every eligible voter could register for vouchers to donate up to $100 in a primary election and $100 in a general election each cycle, either all at once or in $10 increments to one or more candidates over time. Each participant would get a separate $200 pool for House, Senate and presidential contests for a total maximum donation of $600 for those federal offices.

There would be strings attached for both donors and candidates. The money could go only to elections in the donor's state, although they could be used for House candidates outside the voter's district.

Politicians would face much tighter limits on donations. To be eligible to receive "Democracy Dollars," a candidate would have to voluntarily agree to forgo any contributions larger than $200 per donor. That's a big drop from the current maximum of $2,800 per primary cycle and $2,800 for the general election.

Gillibrand predicted candidates would opt into the voucher system "because the potential of how much you could raise in this system is exponentially higher."

She envisioned a system in which campaigns adjusted their strategies to win donations from local voting blocs that would otherwise go overlooked from a fundraising standpoint.

"They would campaign in all communities," she said. "They would be going to low-income communities, they would be going to rural communities, they would be asking people to support them not only with a vote, but with (financial) support for their campaign."

Currently only about 0.5 percent of Americans contribute more than $200 to campaigns each cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Research by the progressive think tank Demos in 2016 found donors tend to bedisproportionately whiter, wealthier and more male than the overall population.

"It will change who has a seat at the table and who gets elected in this country within one election cycle," Gillibrand said.

The campaign didn't provide an estimate of the total cost of the plan, but said it would pay for the voucher program by limiting a corporate deduction for executive compensation, which it estimates would raise $60 billion over 10 years. Candidates, parties and outside groups spent a combined totaltotal of $5.7 billion in the 2018 cycle and $6.5 billion in 2016. In addition to vouchers, the campaign said its plan would include a system to investigate and prosecute potential fraud.

Gillibrand's plan is modeled on a similar program in Seattle, which implemented a $25 voucher system for local elections in 2017 after voters passed it through a ballot initiative.

The early results were mixed, but not without some success. Small donors surged from 8,200 in 2015 to 25,000 in 2017, according to a report by the campaign finance advocacy group Every Voice, and the contributors tended to be younger and more diverse than traditional donors. Six candidates opted into the voucher system, one of whom won a city council seat, but donor participation in the program was still relatively low at 3.3 percent of eligible voters, even though the city mailed vouchers to their homes.

Democratic candidates have increasingly embraced public financing plans at the state and federal level, although most proposals have not been structured as a voucher program.

An ethics reform bill in Congress backed by Democratic leaders in the House and Senate would match small donations with six times as much money in public funds. It includes a "my voice voucher" program similar to Gillibrand's but much smaller in scale: It would test the idea as a pilot program in select locations and the vouchers would be for only $25.

"Gillibrand's plan is the most ambitious adoption of the idea that I think we've seen so far," Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and former presidential candidate who has advocated for the voucher concept, told NBC News.

It's not just newer candidates looking to win voters over on the issue either. Joe Biden's campaign has already highlighted his support for public campaign financing dating back to the 1970s.

But his difficultygetting related legislation enacted in that time suggests how hard the path would be for Gillibrand, or anyone else. For her part, she sounded optimistic about her chances.

"You have to be able to reach across the aisle, find common ground and I think people can agree that our political system is broken," she said.