Legal battle over Seattle’s democracy vouchers far from over

Nov 6, 2017, 1:54 PM | Updated: 1:59 pm

democracy voucher, democracy vouchers program, donors...

A Seattle democracy voucher. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Seattle voters approved the taxpayer funded Democracy Voucher Program in 2015.

The program uses a minor property tax levy to create a pool of money used to give Seattle residents $100 in vouchers (four $25 vouchers each) they can then use to donate to the campaigns of candidates they want for city office.

The idea is to counter big money in elections, give average people a chance to run, force candidates to solicit donations from a wider pool of people — not just the super wealthy — and get more voters involved.

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It’s the first program in the country to give public money to people to encourage them to get involved in campaign financing.

Attorney Ethan Blevins with Pacific Legal Foundation says that’s the problem.

“What happens is the property owner pays in to a tax and then private individuals are able to decide where that money goes for the purpose of political campaign contributions,” Blevins said. “So basically it forces property owners to sponsor speech that they don’t want to sponsor and that violates your First Amendment right to decide what to say … and what not to say.”

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Blevins and Pacific Legal Foundation sued on behalf of two Seattle property owners who felt the Democracy Voucher Program violated their First Amendment rights by forcing them to pay a tax that’s used to donate to a campaign they may not agree with.

Michael Ryan with the Seattle City Attorney’s office says the argument doesn’t hold up.

“That’s a fact of American life, that we all pay taxes and we all don’t agree with how our tax dollars are spent,” Ryan said. “If you could make a constitutional challenge to every single tax on the basis that the money is being used in ways that you disagree with, that would destroy the entire taxing system in our country.”

In the lawsuit, Blevins also argued the Democracy Voucher Program wasn’t viewpoint-neutral.

“For example, Teresa Mosqueda and Jon Grant both have received the maximum amount of funding you can get through the voucher program while certain other candidates have received a lot less,” Blevins said. “We’ve used that to demonstrate that this is a viewpoint-based kind of program because certain majoritarian views, the candidates that speak to the majority of Seattle residents are going to get most of this money, whereas minority candidates or dissenting viewpoints are not going to get as much.”

But Ryan said that argument doesn’t hold up either.

“The city distributes funds in a viewpoint-neutral manner, meaning that any candidate who gets a sufficient amount of grassroots support can be a part of the program, and the city doesn’t pick and choose who gets that money,” Ryan said. “It gives it to the citizens and the citizens ultimately make a private choice as to what to do with that voucher.”

Last week, a King County judge agreed with those arguments and granted the city’s request to dismiss the lawsuit Blevins and the Pacific Legal Group filed on behalf of the two property owners.

The judge agreed the Democracy Voucher Program was “viewpoint-neutral” because candidates who qualify for the vouchers do so regardless of their political views, and there are no restrictions on which candidates voters can give them to.

And, though the judge found the Democracy Voucher program did have First Amendment implications, she said that didn’t mean it was unconstitutional because the city has a reasonable justification for it: it seeks to increase voter participation and falls within the scope of public campaign financing allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Blevins called that a mixed outcome and plans to appeal.

This is the first time the vouchers will be used in an election. They can only be used for the two Seattle City Council races and Seattle City Attorney race this first time, but mayoral candidates will be able to use them in 2021.

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More than 61,000 vouchers were used in this election and about 41,000 of them went to city candidates who made it through to the General Election, totaling more than $1 million.

Here is the break down:

–In the race for Seattle City Attorney, Pete Holmes received 3,240 vouchers for a total of $81,000.

–In the City Council Position 9 race, Lorena Gonzales received 8,527 vouchers totaling $213,175, while challenger Pat Murakami received 5,154 vouchers for about $128,850.

–In the race for City Council Position 8, Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda have received 12,000 vouchers each totaling $300,000 — the maximum allowed under the voucher program.

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Legal battle over Seattle’s democracy vouchers far from over