Nov 20, 2023 - Politics

How Seattle's democracy vouchers are working

Illustration of a checkmark made from one hundred dollar bills

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

About 30,000 voters used democracy vouchers in this year's Seattle City Council elections, pouring nearly $2.4 million in public money into candidates' campaigns.

Yes, but: Some worry Seattle's experiment with public campaign financing is being undercut by third-party PACs that can raise and spend unlimited amounts.

Catch up quick: Seattle voters approved the Democracy Voucher Program through a citizen initiative in 2015, along with a $3 million-per-year property tax to pay for it through 2025.

  • Registered Seattle voters are given four $25 vouchers they can give to candidates.
  • Candidates who accept the vouchers are limited in what they can spend throughout much of the campaign, unlike independent political action committees, often called super PACs.

Why it matters: In five of seven Seattle City Council races on the Nov. 7 ballot, the winning candidates were the ones who benefited from the most third-party PAC spending.

  • PACs backed by business and real estate interests spent more than $1 million to try to elect their preferred candidates, making up the majority of this year's third-party spending in Seattle races.

What they're saying: "The No. 1 reason progressives lost more than anything is that they couldn't compete financially," political consultant Michael Charles told Axios this month about the election results.

  • Charles has previously argued that the democracy voucher system needs reform so that PAC spending doesn't have such an outsized effect.
  • That could mean raising the spending caps for candidates or using more public money to supply more vouchers, he said.

Between the lines: Candidates using democracy vouchers to run for a district-level council seat are limited to raising $187,500 per year. That cap can be lifted if their opponent and third-party PACs spend more.

  • But that's not guaranteed to happen — and if it does, it may happen too late in the campaign for candidates to take advantage of it, political consultant Erin Schultz told Axios.

The big picture: Schultz and many others who are concerned about unrestrained super PAC spending still say democracy vouchers have greatly improved Seattle politics.

  • Instead of raising money primarily by calling big-money donors, candidates now spend more time going door to door, talking to constituents, said Kamau Chege, executive director of the Washington Community Alliance.
  • "It increases the number of everyday people contributing to campaigns," Chege told Axios.
  • That's backed up by research from the University of Washington, which also found that the program increased the number of candidates who choose to run.

What we're watching: Based on past Supreme Court decisions — including the 2010 Citizens United case — restraining third-party PAC spending likely isn't an option for government officials right now, Travis Ridout, a political science professor at Washington State University, told Axios.

  • But a proposed ballot initiative in Maine could change the legal landscape if it passes and is upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, said Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who leads an organization that has helped gather signatures for the measure.
  • The Maine initiative, which supporters are working to put on the ballot in November 2024, would limit how much individual donors can give to super PACs.

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