With record campaign spending, is Seattle’s Democracy Voucher still working?

This election marks the first time that all of Seattle’s major elected offices have used the city’s Democracy Voucher program, having debuted in 2017 on a limited basis. Given that campaign spending hit record highs again in 2021, is the program working as intended?

Seattle mayoral race fundraiser reaches highest total in nearly two decades of data

The first democracy voucher program was approved in 2015, funded until 2025 by a property tax of $ 3 million per year, costing the average homeowner about $ 8 per year.

In practice, each eligible Seattle resident receives $ 100 in vouchers, divided into four individual $ 25 segments. Voters can choose to award any number of their four vouchers to eligible candidates by completing them and mailing them back to the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission (SEEC). Each person’s four vouchers can be mailed together or in pieces throughout the year.

As the city describes it, the objective of the program lies in “increasing the transparency, accountability and accessibility of election financing in Seattle”. So how is it that the current Seattle mayoral candidates have yet managed to raise the most money in any Seattle general election race in 19 years of available records?

Policy expert Thomas Latkowski – who is the author a recently released book on Seattle’s Democracy Voucher – believes that the greatest benefits offered by vouchers are not really related to dollar amounts.

“Decreasing total campaign spending is not really the goal of the Democracy Vouchers program,” he told MyNorthwest. “The whole problem with money in politics is not the total dollar amount.”

Rather it resides in who these campaign donors are. Latkowski points out a study who found that before the Seattle voucher program went into effect, “one of the biggest predictors of whether or not someone was a donor was whether they had a view of Lake Washington or Puget Sound “.

Put simply, in any given year the people most likely to donate money to a campaign were white and wealthy. With Democracy Vouchers in place, however, “we have seen more representative donors by race, income and age.”

“This means that the people the candidates talk to to get their money to fund their campaigns reflect the city as a whole,” Latkowski noted.

“In the vast majority of cases, successful candidates who are able to run competitive campaigns have rich donors they can count on,” he continued. “But in Seattle it’s no longer necessary – we’ve seen candidates running serious campaigns that are well-funded enough to get their point across without needing rich donors because you can count on ordinary people for your contributions. “

It also led to an increase in the turnout among people who historically did not participate in the Seattle election. According to a complementary study who looked at data from the Seattle election in 2017, people who had voted in less than half of the previous elections to which they were eligible became four times more likely to vote after handing in their vouchers.

“In many cases, this was the first time they had interacted with a candidate,” explained Latkowski. “It was the first time that a candidate or someone from a campaign knocked on their door, and it got them thinking, ‘you know, I guess this is for me, I can be engaged in that. “”

Foreign money raises its head

Seattle’s rules for campaign fundraising aren’t perfect either, though that’s not the fault of the voucher program per se.

“The underlying problem is that we are unable to restrict independent spending,” Latkowski said.

The city’s ability to put safeguards around political action committees is severely limited, in large part thanks to the now infamous 2010 United Citizens Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States. The judges ruled 5-4 that the government could not restrict the independent spending of companies, unions and political action committees, effectively opening the floodgates to unlimited amounts of outside money in elections at all levels to the United States.

For Seattle, that means independent spending committees (IRCs) have carte blanche to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support whoever they choose, as long as they don’t coordinate directly with the candidates themselves.

In the run-up to the August primaries, several mayoral candidates expressed concern that the CEIs were “bypassing” Seattle’s democracy voucher program, although Latkowski notes that, appropriate, the vouchers provided a necessary tool for applicants who might not have outside support. money.

Seattle mayoral candidates released from spending cap as PAC funds continue to flow

The 2019 election cycle seemed to prove it firsthand, after Amazon poured $ 1.4 million into an IEC supporting business-friendly city council candidates. In the end, only two of the seven candidates backed by that money won their respective elections.

“A group like Amazon will always have more money and can spend more than a grassroots candidate, but at least with the democracy coupons we can make sure the grassroots candidates have enough to get their point across,” Latkowski said. “Even if they’re still spending 10 to 1, they can get their point across and give voters a chance to make up their minds, and I think that’s what we saw in 2019, where a lot of these [grassroots] the candidates won, despite being over-spent.

Big-spend IECs were equally prevalent in 2021, with committees supporting the two mayoral candidates each raising more than $ 1 million in contributions. These funds were spent on numerous advertisements on almost all of the major local TV networks, on the front page of outlets like the Seattle Times, and on the tens of thousands of leaflets that flooded the mailboxes of local voters.

Going forward, Latkowski hopes to see cities like Seattle find ways “at the very least to make life more difficult for independent spending groups.” Some proposals have also already been implemented, including a measure adopted in 2019 banning political donations from companies with at least 5% ownership by foreigners. At the time, critics lamented the bill like “an end of race around Citizens United”.

Beyond that, city leaders may need to consider other legal avenues in the future.

“I think there is room for lawyers and experts in this space to get creative and say, ‘OK, these are our restrictions, what can we do that has not been rejected by the Supreme Court ? “” said Latkowski. “There’s room for some creativity here – we should at least try things out, even if some of them are hit.”

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