Seattle voters will receive $100 in vouchers for campaigns next year

Sep 21, 2016, 8:20 PM

Since Seattle voters approved Initiative 122 last year, the Ethics and Elections Commission has been working out how to give out taxpayer-funded vouchers to voters beginning in 2017.

In January, each registered voter will be mailed four, $25 vouchers, totaling $100 to contribute toward campaigns of their choice. Seattle is the first city in the country to implement so-called “democracy vouchers.”

The 2017 races eligible to accept such vouchers will be the two at-large council positions and the city attorney.

The money for these vouchers is raised through increased property taxes that have already been levied beginning this year.

The rate is $0.019 per $1,000 of assessed value, which comes out to $7.76 per year for the owner of a $400,000 home.

Supporters of the concept have said this will level the playing field, allowing more people to throw their weight behind candidates they support, even if the person doesn’t have a lot of money.

One of the races people can give vouchers to next year is Lorena Gonzalez’ at-large council seat. Gonzalez said she will choose to accept vouchers.

“Instead of me spending 16 hours in a conference room calling high-value donors for money, contributions, I have now the obligation to go out – and the incentive to go out – into community, talk to real people, to working people, to ordinary people, to people who don’t cut $700 checks,” Gonzalez said.

What you need to know about the program:

• A person can use all four vouchers on one candidate, or split the vouchers up to use on different campaigns.
• Candidates who accept vouchers will be required to cap campaign spending. The caps are different for each race. For the at-large council position, for example, one would be limited to spending $150,000 in a primary and $300,000 in total.
• Anyone who wants to accept vouchers would first need to get a certain number of signatures, and the candidate must disclose if the signature gatherers are paid. Each signature needs to be accompanied by a minimum $10 donation.
• The initiative limits contributions from organizations or companies that have big contracts with the city. Those who hire lobbyists will also be limited in contributions.
• Any legal resident of Seattle can obtain and use vouchers, even if he or she is not a registered voter. Only registered voters will receive the vouchers automatically in the mail, however, so those who are older than 18 and not registered to vote can request them from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
• A voucher holder can write the name of the candidate he or she supports, sign it, and give the voucher to that candidate directly. One can also give the voucher to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
• The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission will verify all signatures and assign each voter a special PIN, to be able to track vouchers.
• People can receive vouchers every two years for city elections.

Opponents have criticized the concept of taxpayer dollars being used for campaign contributions. The Washington Policy Center opposes the idea of homeowners being forced to give this money, which may then be spent on candidates they don’t support.

Other opponents, including Michele Radosevich, a former chair of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, said the system will not have the desired effect.

Radosevich said the program is “a very time-consuming, costly process. So it’s a lot of money to spend on campaign finance reform, and I don’t think it actually accomplishes the purpose.”

While she described herself as a progressive who supports campaign finance reform, Radosevich said this voucher program favors incumbents and established special interest groups.

“It places a premium on organization, and organization always favors interest groups, which know how to have voucher parties, for instance,” she said.

But Gonzalez said organizing is the point.

“If we see the candidate who wins is the one who knows how to organize the ordinary person, I think the intent of this law and the intent of the democracy voucher program will have been met,” Gonzalez said.

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Seattle voters will receive $100 in vouchers for campaigns next year