During the 2017 election cycle, which included races for City Council, school board, and the Mayor, the City of Seattle sent every registered voter—442,316 people in total—four pieces of paper. The papers, called Democracy Vouchers, were each worth $25, paid for by the taxpayers, and were to be used for the sole purpose of making contributions to that year’s active campaigns.
This was the trial run for the Democracy Voucher program, born out of a 2015 citizen-led initiative called Honest Elections, which included a suite of other campaign finance reforms policies, including lower contribution caps and new rules about paid signature gathering. The vouchers are paid for by a property tax (Washington state has no income tax and uses property taxes and levies to fund most of its new programs) “amounting to a total of $3 million per year to fund the program for the next 10 years,” according to the city.
Getting big money out of politics—flushing out dark money and overturning Citizens United—has been a major talking point at the national level, though in the current climate meaningful action seems unlikely. In Seattle, voters have taken matters into their own hands, creating an innovative method to help regular folks give real money to campaigns.
It’s a good place for this kind of experiment, too. Despite its reputation as a liberal bastion, Seattle remains a highly divided city, and one where the wealth gap is more apparent than ever. In addition to old money from Microsoft and Boeing, the newfound, though concentrated, wealth being created by companies like Amazon have generated a crisis of affordability. Much of Seattle’s money is concentrated in the hands of just a few people and companies—Paul Allen’s Vulcan, for example—who have, for many years, held massive sway over elections, cutting big checks and ensuring that “business-friendly” policies, like low levels of local regulations, are maintained.
Honest Elections sought to level the playing field some by putting money into the hands of voters and encouraging them to spend it on the candidates they wanted to see in office. These small donations—between $25 and $100—were designed to offset the monied individuals and companies who regularly maxed out their campaign giving.
When the initiative was first introduced in 2015, it was shrouded in questions: Could the city afford it? Could it administer the program? Would it work?
And though it’s too soon to draw many conclusions, the program does seem, at least for now, to be working as intended; a recent report authored by Win/Win and Every Voice, two Washington progressive organizations, found that more than 18,000 Seattle residents contributed to campaigns using their vouchers. The report estimated that 84 percent of those who donated to candidates were first-time contributors and that 71 percent of these people were using vouchers.
More than 70,000 vouchers have been returned and processed by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) to date, generating millions of donations and expenditures by the three campaigns where vouchers were eligible for use—two for city council and one for city attorney.
Despite skepticism, the program’s backers were always believers.
“We knew the program would be a success and we were thrilled to see how many new residents across the city participated using Democracy Vouchers,” says Spencer Olson, Director of Fuse Washington’s Communications Hub, a progressive advocacy organization. “Maps produced by the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission show widespread use of vouchers, which is a stark contrast to 2013 Seattle donors, who mostly came from whiter, wealthier individuals living in waterfront property,” he says.
Not everyone is a fan of the program, however; one Hisam Goueli, who ran for Seattle City Council but did not clear the primary, has spoken with numerous news organizations to state his displeasure, calling the program “tragic,” largely because, he says, it takes away from the candidate’s ability to raise funds and spread their message without the vouchers. Additionally, he believes it’s too difficult to qualify for the program to begin with.
“It was just too much to explain that in 15 seconds when you’re at a stranger’s door,” he told Seattle’s NPR affiliate, KUOW Public Radio.
It’s true that there is a barrier to being eligible for the program—candidates were required to gather 400 qualified signatures, each with accompanying donations of $10—but that’s by design. The City of Seattle has a history of colorful and often un-serious characters running for office, like long-time political character Goodspaceguy Nelson, who campaigns on colonizing the moon. In 2017, a total of 21 individuals threw their hat in the ring for mayor in 2017, many on a lark or to further their own agenda. If Democracy Vouchers were easily available for every candidate in every race, the cost would be unsustainable.
Goueli seems to be the exception, though; for the most part, the program has received warm reviews, even from those who were charged with most of the heavy lifting.
“We know one thing for sure,” says the SEEC’s director, Wayne Barnett, who oversaw the execution of the program, “which is that it brought a lot of new people into the process.”
Barnett says he and his office intend to talk to voters, candidates, and others who had direct involvement with the program—whether as a campaign official, a consultant, or a voter—in the coming weeks and months and will be working to create recommendations for changes before 2019. At that time, all seven of the city’s councilmembers who are elected by district will be up for reelection—and the SEEC is hoping to have higher numbers of both candidate and voter participations.
The degree of voter buy-in this program has created is exciting for those looking for new ways to reduce the power of huge donors like the Koch Brothers and other wealthy interests. A relatively small amount of taxpayer money can empower ordinary voters to invest in candidates, while at the same time empowering candidates who may not typically attract high-dollar donors. Candidates who agree to participate in the program agree to cap their individual donations even further, a move that’s intended to level the playing field.
Though it’s certainly not conclusive, there’s anecdotal evidence that this is the case. Barnett points to the average individual contribution amounts of races which were and were not part of the Democracy Voucher pilot program; overall, races which used Democracy Vouchers saw smaller individual contributions than those that did not.
In one race that included one candidate who qualified to use Democracy Vouchers and one that did not, the candidate who did qualify—and who ultimately won—saw an average donation of $86. His opponent’s was $260. In a race where both candidates qualified, their average contribution per donor was separated by just $7 dollars, at $82 and $89, respectively. Meanwhile, in the Mayor’s race, where vouchers weren’t used (this time; however, the program will be expanded to the 2021 Mayoral race) the top two candidates saw average individual donations of $234.76 (for the candidate who ultimately won) and $174.27 for the one who did not.
The vouchers also meant that the candidates were able to spend more freely; according to Barnett, his office processed more transactions than ever before, including 2015, when nine City Council seats were open. That means candidates were able to send more mailers, take out more ads, and even pay more staffers than they would have otherwise, ensuring a greater degree of outreach and engagement.
The volume of work offers some the program does present some logistical concerns—chiefly, it’s a lot of paperwork, postage, and administration, says Barnett. “We’re regulators, not administrators,” he explains, calling it a “technical challenge.”
Yet other cities will likely be looking to Seattle to see if this program is worthwhile. And Seattle knows it. Barnett says that, right now, his office is working to nail down what it really costs to start and operate this system and make recommendations for other regions that may want to give it a spin.
Still, Barnett says he believes it’s scalable—much of the expense is the overhead required to get the program started, including staffing the office, launching a comprehensive website, and familiarizing voters with the program in general. That, he says, will reduce over time. Additionally, new, less expensive systems are coming; by the 2019 elections, the process will be streamlined and offer an online option, rather than strictly relying on mail-in vouchers, which should cut down on postage and administrative costs.
The potential costs haven’t deterred the program’s supporters, though.
“If we want a government that is of, by, and for the people, we need to address who can run and who can give,” Olson says. “This will fundamentally change the type of candidates who can run for office and the Seattle residents who can support them.”