If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them: Seattle’s counterintuitive response to too much money in politics

By: Anna Ellermeier

In November 2015, voters in Seattle approved Initiative 122, creating the first-ever Democracy Voucher Program. The program provides registered Seattle voters with four vouchers—or “democracy dollars”—each worth $25. Voters can then take these vouchers and give them to any candidate for city council, mayor, or city attorney who participates in the program.

Graphic_Democracy Voucher program

The idea for the initiative grew out of a concern about the role campaign financing plays in Seattle elections, and the sentiment that the rich, through their money, have a larger voice in politics. For example, a 2013 study revealed that half of the money raised for races in Seattle’s 2013 election cycle came from just 1,683 donors, which is about 0.3% of Seattle adults.

Seattle, known for being at the forefront of progressive issues—including raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 in 2014—is used to being a trendsetter. And this was not Seattle’s first attempt to disrupt a campaign finance system that many city residents view as corrupt. In 2013, Seattle voters narrowly defeated Prop 1, a ballot measure which would have created a public financing system for city council elections. I-122 passed in a relative landslide with 62.9% of the vote.

According to Honest Elections, the group responsible for advancing I-122, the purpose of the voucher program is four-fold: “I-122 will limit big money interests in city policy-making, increase accountability and transparency in our local government, give ordinary people a stronger voice in local government, and ensure candidates focus less on needs of big money donors, and can spend more time listening to voters.”

The voucher program will cost the city an estimated $3 million dollars each year. To fund the vouchers, I-122 asked voters to approve a property tax increase of $0.0194/$1000 assessed value. That works out to about $12.50 for a property worth $650,000 (which, astoundingly, is the median home price in Seattle).

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission is tasked with running the program, including mailing out the vouchers in the January of an election year (Seattle city elections happen in two-year cycles). To use their “democracy dollars,” voters simply sign the vouchers and mail it to the candidate they wish to support, provided that the candidate has elected to participate in the voucher program. There is also an online option for sending vouchers to candidates. All contributions are public.

For candidates who chose to participate in the voucher program, however, the money comes with some strings. Any candidate receiving contributions through the voucher program is required to participate in at least three debates, and agree to accept lower spending and contribution limits. In addition, candidates receiving voucher money cannot accept any donations from groups or individuals who have contracts with the city worth more than $250,000, or who have spent more than $5,000 on lobbying efforts in the past year. Furthermore, if a candidate who has received democracy dollars is elected, they along with their tops aids are prohibited from lobbying the city for a three-year period after their term in office is over.

The program is not without its critics. Opponents argue that the vouchers will unfairly benefit incumbents because of when the vouchers are made available. Voters can begin to assign their vouchers as early as January of an election year, but this is often before challenger candidates have even declared their candidacy. Critics also argue that the voucher programs disproportionately benefits candidates backed by well-organized political groups since these groups will be able to use already-established membership lists to reel in large numbers of vouchers for a candidate with a single call-to-action or email blast. Concerns have also been raised about the administrative costs of the program which are estimated to run between $21 and $28 for of every $100 levied to fund the vouchers.

Critics also point to the irony in the funding structure of the initiative campaign itself. 52% of the money that funded the campaign to get I-122 on the ballot in 2015 was from donors outside  Seattle. The average contribution to the “Honest Elections” campaign—$7,134—dwarfed the average contribution of the even most expensive city council race in Seattle history—$166—which was going on at the same time.

The first democracy vouchers will be available to Seattle voters this January, in advance of the November 2017 city elections. In the meantime, the city has hired staff to run the program and set up a website with information for candidates and voters.

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