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Seattle’s million-dollar experiment with Democracy vouchers is distributing thousands

To date, Seattle residents have returned approximately 16,000 Democracy vouchers. (KIRO 7)
LISTEN: Seattle’s million-dollar experiment with Democracy vouchers is distributing thousands

With two months remaining in the primary, Seattle’s one-of-a-kind experiment with publicly financed elections is off to a modest start with three candidates so far having cashed in a total of $230,000 in Democracy Vouchers.

County election records show at-large city council candidate Jon Grant leading the publicly financed candidates with $129,450 in vouchers cashed, followed by at-large council candidate Teresa Mosqueda with $61,225. City Attorney Pete Holmes, who is seeking re-election, has collected 1,597 vouchers for a total of $39,925.

Holmes, who has been city attorney since 2010, said the untested program’s newness meant a learning curve for both voters and candidates.

“I was talking more about Democracy Vouchers in the first half of the campaign than I was about the campaign,” Holmes said. “We are the guinea pigs.”

Approved by city voters in 2015, the Democracy Voucher program sets aside a new pot of property tax money to give four, $25 campaign vouchers to the each of the city’s registered voters. Those voters, in turn, can pick which candidates or candidate get their vouchers. In exchange, participating candidates agree to spending caps.

The only program of its type in the country, the vouchers experiment was geared for three primary effects: Taking the big money out of local politics; improving voter participation rates; and bringing new candidates to the process.

So how is it doing?

“It’s too early to gauge its success,” said Wayne Barnett, the executive director of the Democracy Voucher program. “But I would say that so far, it’s working well.”

To date, Seattle residents have returned approximately 16,000 vouchers. But 6,000 of those have not been assigned to a candidate for reasons including that the candidate isn’t yet eligible or that the candidate isn’t running for office at this time.

For the current election cycle, the vouchers are only allowed for the two at-large council seats and the city attorney race.

In exchange for public money, candidates who opt-in must agree to specific spending and fundraising restrictions. To qualify for the vouchers, at-large council candidates first must gather 400 signatures with a $10 to $250 donation from each. For the city attorney race, each candidate must gather 150 signatures and accept similar donation restrictions.

Candidates also must agree to spend no more than $150,000 in the primary – which ends in August – and no more than $300,000 overall including the general election.

Holmes opponent, Scott Lindsay, is not participating in the voucher program. Lindsay, who is Mayor Ed Murray’s public safety advisor, has raised $27,735 so far, according to state records. But because he is not taking public money, he is not limited in his fundraising for either the primary or general election.

The voucher program started with the passage of Initiative 122, the “Honest Elections Seattle” measure approved by city voters two years ago.

The money linked to unassigned vouchers will remain in the election funds pool for the next election cycle when additional city council seats will be eligible (2019) and the mayor’s race (2021). The fund is expected to collect $3 million annually from the fee that adds, on average, an additional $11 to the taxes on each home.

Holmes said the program is a work in progress.

“We’ll be talking to them about what can be improved,” he said. “The turn-around for the money is slow, for example.”

Didn’t get your Democracy Vouchers? Click here.

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