Seattle’s experiment to boost democratic participation is underway: Democracy vouchers, a new way to finance campaigns for public office, have hit mailboxes all over town.
Voters approved the voucher system in 2015 in an attempt to reform political finance at the local level and encourage budding politicians and residents to engage in city politics. The system provides four vouchers, worth $25 each, to all residents of Seattle who are eligible to donate to qualifying campaigns. Candidates must agree to abide by the rules of the program to receive the donations.
The concept, a first in the nation, was billed as a way to “keep elections in the hands of the voters” and make electeds accountable to their constituents rather than their big-dollar donors. It provided campaigns the option of the vouchers, but only if they agreed to accept a $250 cap on cash contributions and campaign spending limits, which vary by office. Candidates who do not accept vouchers have a $500 cap on cash donations.
It costs a substantial amount of money to run a citywide campaign, and only 1 or 2 percent of Seattle residents currently give to campaigns, said Wayne Barnett, executive director of Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission.
“For a credible run for city office, you’ve got to raise at a minimum $100,000,” Barnett said. “That is very difficult if not impossible for folks to do if they don’t come from resources, or have the friends and families able to write $500 checks to them.”
The “Honest Elections Seattle” initiative goes further than issuing the vouchers, which are paid for with a bump in property taxes. It also increased civil penalties for election law violations, added new requirements on campaign financial disclosures and prohibited elected officials and some of their employees from lobbying for three years after leaving their office or position.
The program applies to the city attorney and at-large council races this year. It will be open to the mayoral race in 2021.
“This is our moment,” said Jon Grant, the former director of the Tenant’s Union and candidate for an at-large seat on the City Council.
Grant addressed a Green Party meeting on Jan. 25 in the Chinatown–International District. He came to describe the campaign and give his position on social justice and environmental issues, but also to try to collect the last 50 signatures and donations that he needed to qualify for the Democracy Voucher program.
So far, eight candidates have pledged to use the vouchers, seven for City Council seats and one for city attorney. Although all may accept people’s vouchers, none are yet eligible to cash them. Under the program, candidates must prove that they have grassroots support by collecting signatures and $10 donations from 400 people.
They turn those in to the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission, which sends them to the King County Elections office to verify the signatures.
Grant has been going door to door talking to potential voters and encouraging them to get behind the voucher program.
He raised $75,000 for his 2015 campaign running against Councilmember Tim Burgess for the same at-large seat he’s competing for this year. Burgess raised nearly $400,000, and walked away with 55 percent of the vote and the win.
If the voucher program was in place and both candidates agreed to use it — it is voluntary — the campaigns would have a $150,000 spending limit for each election, or $300,000 total for the primary and the general.
Because the program is voluntary, it is possible for one candidate to vastly outspend their opponent by running a traditional campaign. If that were the case, candidates could ask the Ethics and Elections Commission to release them from the voucher program, provided they returned the money, Barnett said.
This is the first election cycle that the vouchers will be in play, but they will get their true test beginning with the 2021 mayoral race.
That’s because the program is backed by $6 million per election cycle raised through property taxes, an amount that accounts for six candidates vying for each open seat and maxing out their potential democracy voucher contributions, Barnett said.
Opponents of the measure argued that the voucher program would run out of money, disenfranchising voters who waited too long to assign their vouchers.
That’s unlikely for the City Council or city attorney races, but it’s possible that mayoral races, which have a $400,000 spending limit per election, or $800,000 for the primary and general, could eventually bankrupt the system.
“Conceivably, at some point, if we had budget-busting mayoral cycles that could be an issue,” Barnett said. “We’d tell them we’re about to run out of money, please get the vouchers you have in hand and we will distribute the remaining funds on a pro-rata basis.”
Democracy vouchers are available to anyone who qualifies to donate to a political campaign, meaning that people who can’t vote — like felons still under the authority of the Department of Corrections – may participate in the program.
The vouchers went out to all registered voters, but people who can’t vote may still apply for the vouchers.
For more information on the program, available in 15 languages, up-to-date campaign disclosure forms and information on the candidates, visit the Ethics and Elections Commission website.