Victory: City of Seattle’s Innovative Public Financing System Will Stand

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  • David Vance

Today, the city of Seattle’s democracy voucher program has been upheld as constitutional. The Superior Court of the State of Washington for King County issued an opinion finding that the city’s pioneering public financing system is a valid tool for the city government to foster citizen involvement in elections, which is a goal “vital to a self-governing people.”

“This is a huge win for the people of Seattle who voted overwhelmingly to take back their elections from special interests by passing this citizen-financed elections bill,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause. “Deep-pocketed special interests have challenged similar programs across the country but the courts have consistently sided with citizens over big money interests because the Supreme Court in Buckley made very clear that citizen-financed election programs do not curb First Amendment rights but actually advance those rights.”

“This positive decision protects the city of Seattle’s ability to boost citizen engagement in local campaigns,” said Tara Malloy, senior director, appellate litigation and strategy at Campaign Legal Center (CLC). “Seattle’s public financing system loosens the stranglehold that large donors have had over the terms of political debate. As Judge Andrus recognized, the voucher program aims to broaden ‘voter participation in the electoral process’– and to further the First Amendment rights of city residents – by giving more people an opportunity to have their voices heard in our democracy.”

In November 2015, over sixty percent of Seattle voters approved I-122, known as the Honest Elections Seattle Initiative, a comprehensive set of reforms intended to reshape the campaign process for local office. Available data from Seattle show that the democracy voucher program has already spurred impressive levels of local engagement. Since the program’s rollout in January, Seattle residents have collectively assigned over 34,000 democracy vouchers valued at nearly $865,000 to qualified candidates. Past research has found that Seattle’s program has boosted political engagement among a younger and more diverse pool of the electorate.

Common Cause and CLC filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Sept. 20, 2017 in support of the city’s public financing system.

To read the brief, click here.