First round of ‘democracy vouchers’ headed to Seattle voters
For the first time, the City of Seattle is preparing to mail out “democracy vouchers” to registered voters.
Eligible voters will receive four, $25 vouchers that can be used to fund political candidates that opt into the public campaign finance program that was created after voters approved I-122 in 2015.
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 the 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 Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which is mailing out two million vouchers to voters on Jan. 3, estimates the tax costs $11.50 per year for the average homeowner.
Backers of the effort argue the program allows more people to become involved in politics. It helps level the playing field through a publicly funded system that hopes to decrease the role of big money in local politics. And it will allow more people to throw their weight behind the candidates they support, even if they don’t have much money.
“The reason that young people are excited about Initiative 122 is that it is really moving to put the power of politics back into the hands of common people,” Sonny Nguyen, engagement coordinator for a group specializing in young voters and support for I-122, told KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz in November 2015.
Critics argue that there are potential flaws. For example, the program is voluntary. That means candidates that don’t participate can raise as much money as they want; those who do participate can only accept limited donations and block contributions from special interest groups that do more than $250,000 worth of work for the city.
“By steering hundreds of thousands of dollars to favored candidates, special interests will have even more influence over politicians than they already do,” former Seattle Ethics and Elections chairperson Michele Radosevich said in 2015.
Washington state rejected similar measure
Washington voters rejected a similar measure this year that would have created a publicly funded voucher system.
Initiative 1464’s voucher system would have given voters three $50 “democracy credits” that they could use in state races every two years. To pay for the statewide system, the measure would have repealed the non-resident sales tax exemption for residents of sales-tax-free states like Oregon and Montana who shop in Washington.
About 53 percent of voters rejected the measure.
What you need to know about democracy vouchers
• 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 18 or older 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.