Democracy Vouchers Leveling the Political Playing Field in Seattle

Democracy Vouchers Leveling the Political Playing Field in Seattle

There’s news today about an interesting – and promising – experiment in democracy in the Pacific Northwest.

There’s news today about an interesting – and promising – experiment in democracy in the Pacific Northwest.

With most of the votes counted, participants in an innovative “Democracy Voucher” program in Seattle have emerged as the leading candidates in primary election contests for two seats on the City Council.

The program is designed to allow candidates to run and win on a financial base of small dollar contributions, mostly provided in the form of $25 vouchers issued by the local government. Each eligible Seattle resident receives four of the vouchers, which they can then contribute to candidates for council or city attorney. The program is slated to be expanded to mayoral races in 2021.

Seattle voters created the voucher program in a 2015 ballot initiative; it’s being financed by a $3 million annual increase in property taxes, also approved by the voters. The current primary – results are not final because votes are being cast through the U.S. Mail – is the first in which the vouchers have been available.

The Seattle program takes an approach to campaign finance reform that differs from existing public financing plans in the states of Connecticut, Maine, and Arizona and cities like New York and Los Angeles. Most of those programs, including several which Common Cause was instrumental in creating, provide public funds to match small dollar donations the candidates collect from state or local residents. Yet a third public financing option, U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes’ proposed “Government by the People Act,” would provide refundable income tax credits to people making small dollar donations to congressional candidates.

While they work differently, those programs and the Democracy Vouchers have a common goal: breaking the power of big money in politics and government and empowering and bringing into the political process people who don’t normally participate.

Jon Grant, a Seattle housing activist, is a case in point. If current trends hold through the vote count, he will secure one of two slots on the general election ballot for City Council position 8, an at-large seat that represents the entire city. The Nation magazine reported last month that Grant has raised more than $200,000 for his campaign, most of it from vouchers contributed by the city’s homeless population, residents in subsidized housing, immigrants, and other constituencies that typically get little attention from candidates.

“When you are a candidate that no one has ever heard of and you do the work of organizing low-income tenants for 10 years, these are not people with money to give to a political campaign,” Grant, 35, told the Nation. “But now all those folks have an equal say in supporting candidates and that is what is so radical about this.”