With campaign spending at record heights, is Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program still working?

Oct 28, 2021, 12:12 PM | Updated: 1:31 pm
Seattle Democracy Vouchers...
Seattle's Democracy Voucher program began in 2017. (Seattle Ethics and Election Commission)
(Seattle Ethics and Election Commission)

This election marks the first time that every major elected office in Seattle is using the city’s Democracy Voucher program, after debuting in 2017 in a limited fashion. Given that campaign spending has still soared to record levels in 2021, is the program working as intended?

Seattle mayoral race fundraising hits highest total in nearly two decades of data

The first-of-its-kind Democracy Voucher program was approved in 2015, funded through 2025 by a $3-million-a-year property tax, costing the average homeowner roughly $8 annually.

In practice, each eligible resident in Seattle gets $100 worth of vouchers, divided into four individual $25 segments. Voters can choose to assign any number of their four vouchers to eligible candidates by filling them out and mailing them back to the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission (SEEC). Each person’s four vouchers can be sent in together or in pieces throughout the year.

As the city describes it, the goal of the program lies in “increasing transparency, accountability, and accessibility for how Seattle elections are financed.” So, how is it that candidates in Seattle’s current mayoral race have still managed to raise the most money in any Seattle general election race in 19 years of available records?

Policy expert Thomas Latkowski — who authored a recently-released book about Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program — believes the biggest advantages afforded by vouchers isn’t actually related to sheer dollar amounts.

“Decreasing total campaign spending isn’t really the goal of the Democracy Vouchers program,” he told MyNorthwest. “The overall problem with money in politics isn’t the total dollar amount.”

Rather, it lies in who those campaign donors are. Latkowski points to one study which found that prior to Seattle’s voucher program taking effect, “one of the biggest predictors of whether or not someone was a donor was whether they had a view of Lake Washington or Puget Sound.”

Put more simply, in any given year, the people most likely to give money to a campaign were white and wealthy. With Democracy Vouchers in place, though, “we’ve seen donors more representative by race, by income, and by age.”

“That means that the folks that candidates are talking to to get their money to fund their campaigns are reflective of the city as a whole,” Latkowski noted.

“In the vast majority of cases, successful candidates who are able to run competitive campaigns have wealthy donors that they can rely on,” he continued. “But in Seattle, that’s no longer necessary — we’ve seen candidates run serious campaigns that are well-funded enough to get their message across without needing wealthy donors, because you can rely on regular people for your contributions.”

That’s also led to an increase in voter turnout among people who historically hadn’t been engaged with Seattle elections. According to an additional study that looked at data from Seattle’s 2017 election, people who had voted in fewer than half of the previous elections for which they were eligible became four times more likely to vote after turning in their vouchers.

“In many cases, that was the first time they had ever interacted with a candidate,” Latkowski described. “That was the first time a candidate or someone from a campaign had ever knocked on their door, and that got them thinking, ‘you know, I guess this is for me, I can be engaged in this.'”

Outside money rears its head

Seattle’s rules surrounding campaign fundraising aren’t perfect, either, although that’s not the fault of the voucher program per se.

“The underlying problem is that we aren’t able to restrict the independent expenditure spending,” Latkowski clarified.

The city’s ability to put guardrails around political action committees is severely limited, thanks in large part to the now-infamous 2010 Citizens United decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices ruled 5-4 that the government could not restrict independent expenditures by corporations, labor unions, and political action committees, effectively opening the floodgates for unfettered quantities of outside money in elections at every level throughout the United States.

For Seattle, that means independent expenditure committees (IECs) have free rein to raise and spend unlimited sums of money in support of whomever they choose, provided they’re not coordinating directly with candidates themselves.

During the runup to the August primary, several mayoral candidates expressed concerns that IECs were “short-circuiting” Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program, although Latkowski notes that, if anything, vouchers have provided a necessary tool for candidates who might not have the support of outside money.

Seattle mayoral candidates released from spending limit as PAC funds continue flowing

The 2019 election cycle seemed to prove that firsthand, after Amazon poured $1.4 million into an IEC supporting business-friendly city council candidates. Ultimately, just two of the seven candidates supported by that money won their respective elections.

“A group like Amazon will always have more money and can outspend a grassroots candidate, but at least with Democracy Vouchers, we can make sure that grassroots candidates have enough to get their message out,” Latkowski said. “Even if they’re still outspent 10 to 1, they can get their message out and give the voters a shot to make up their mind, and I think that’s what we saw in 2019, where a lot of those [grassroots] candidates won, despite the fact that they were outspent.”

Big-spending IECs have been just as prevalent in 2021, with committees supporting both mayoral candidates having each raised over $1 million in contributions. Those funds have been spent on numerous ads across nearly every major local television network, on the front page of outlets like the Seattle Times, and on tens of thousands of fliers that have flooded the mailboxes of local voters.

In the future, Latkowski hopes to see cities like Seattle find ways “to at the very least, make life harder for independent expenditure groups.” Some proposals have already been implemented too, including a measure passed in 2019 that prohibited political donations from companies with at least 5% foreign ownership. At the time, critics lamented the bill as “an end run around Citizens United.”

Beyond that, city leaders may need to look at other legal pathways in the future.

“I think there’s room for lawyers and experts in this space to get creative and say, ‘OK, these are our restrictions, what can we do that hasn’t been disallowed by the Supreme Court?'” Latkowski said. “There’s room for some creativity here — we should at least try things, even if some of them do get struck down.”

MyNorthwest Blog

Mayor Bruce Harrell, Sonics...
Nick Bowman

Mayor Harrell latest to pick up the torch on years-long effort to bring back the Sonics

Mayor Bruce Harrell is the latest city leader to take the baton on a years-long push to bring the Seattle Sonics back to their home city.
2 months ago
Bruce Harrell...
Nick Bowman

Harrell aims to ‘hit reset’ on strained relationship between Seattle mayor, city council

In his State of the City address, Mayor Bruce Harrell highlighted his hope to repair the strained relationship between his office and Seattle City Council.
3 months ago
ktth, bryan suits...
KTTH staff

KTTH debuts ‘Bryan Suits Show’ weekday mornings

Bryan Suits returns to Seattle airwaves as part of a new lineup on AM 770 KTTH. 'The Bryan Suits Show' airs weekday mornings from 6–9 a.m.
3 months ago
pet names...
Stephanie Klein

Top dog and cat names in King County last year

King County released its 2021 list of most popular pet names and 'Bella' and 'Luna' came out on top.
4 months ago
Seattle election results, Seattle City Hall...
Nick Bowman

What Seattle can expect in new year with shakeups at city hall on the horizon

Seattle City Hall is in for a shakeup at the start of the new year, with a new mayor, councilmember, and city attorney all taking office in January.
5 months ago
unvaccinated officers Seattle...
Nick Bowman

Durkan, Seattle council engage in one final clash in closing days of mayoral term

With Jenny Durkan set to leave office in a matter of days, she and the council appear to have engaged in one final feud, this time over trees. 
5 months ago

Sponsored Articles


Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]

COVID Vaccine is a Game-Changer for Keeping our Kids Healthy

Snohomish Health District SPONSORED — Cheers to the parents and guardians who keep their kids safe and healthy. The dad who cooks a meal with something green in it, even though he’s tired and drive-thru burgers were tempting. The mom who calms down the little one who loudly and resolutely does NOT want to brush […]
Experience Anacortes

Coastal Christmas Celebration Week in Anacortes

With minimal travel time required and every activity under the sun, Anacortes is the perfect vacation spot for all ages.
With campaign spending at record heights, is Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program still working?