Your Democracy Vouchers in Action: Seattle Mayor’s Race

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Candidates for Seattle mayor have raised nearly $2 million thus far, most of it from the taxpayers via the city’s democracy voucher program. Curiously, the early fundraising leader is a longshot whose campaign appears particularly adept at harvesting the vouchers.

The democracy voucher program was approved by Seattle voters in 2015. It sends every registered voter in the city four $25 vouchers that can be contributed like cash to qualified candidates. The money comes from a small increase in the property tax that raises about $3 million per year, or about eight bucks a year from the average homeowner.1 To qualify, candidates must pledge to abide by a spending limit. In this year’s wide-open mayor’s race, that limit is $400,000 for the primary and $800,000 for the entire cycle.

Virtually all of the serious candidates for mayor have embraced this program, a sharp contrast from four years ago when Jenny Durkan swept into office on a wave of maximum contributions from the city’s moneyed establishment.2

Andrew Grant Houston, an architect who works as a policy advisor to City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, is unlikely to advance past the August primary, but he’s currently ahead in the money race with nearly 14,000 vouchers worth almost $350,000. Houston has raised more than $550,000 overall, according to his filings with the Public Disclosure Commission.

Colleen Echohawk, who has been executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, has brought in some 12,500 vouchers for more than $312,000. Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez has brought in more than 8,500 vouchers for $213,900. All told, more than $1.3 million in vouchers had been redeemed as of last week. Most of that money is flowing into the mayor’s race, although about $250,000 has been raised by three candidates running for Gonzalez’s open citywide council seat. Check out this handy table put together by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission:

When the voucher system was just starting up, when I was a strategic communications consultant with a keen interest in the upcoming city council elections, I posed a question to some younger people who were in the grassroots canvassing business 3 (think the fresh-faced folks in pink T-shirts who stop you on the street and ask you to contribute to Planned Parenthood): “You people are pretty good at shaking people down for actual money. How do you think you’d do asking for pieces of paper with no cash value to their owners?”

The consensus among these young acquaintances was that harvesting vouchers would be easy money. Fast forward a few years, and that particular form of campaign fundraising has indeed become something of a cottage industry in Seattle.

Houston’s campaign, a hyper-progressive affair clearly aimed at the kind of young activists who might canvass for democracy vouchers, has spent nearly $200,000 of the money they’ve raised thus far, an unusually high burn rate. Their filings with the Public Disclosure Commission indicate that most of it went to canvassers and canvassing consultants. Echohawk, who’s considered a more viable candidate and has received substantially more attention from the news media, has spent less than half what Houston’s campaign has burned through.

Democracy vouchers were supposed to democratize campaigns and blunt the power of the monied classes, who for many years dominated political fundraising in city races. But it’s possible they’ll help perpetuate the status-quo.

The sparse polling on the race thus far indicates that former city councilmember Bruce Harrell — who was mayor for a hot minute at the end of the Ed Murray fiasco — is the favorite to finish first in the primary as the recognizable moderate “grownup” in the race. The second slot in the general election figures to go to Gonzalez, Echohawk, or Jessyn Farrell, the former state lawmaker who finished fourth in the mayoral primary four years ago. Farrell has gathered almost 2,900 vouchers for more than $72,000, while Harrell has about 4,600 vouchers worth more than $113,000.

These poll results make sense because it’s early days, when name recognition rules. Harrell has been a leading figure in the city for many years, and Gonzalez has the benefit of being president of the city council, which gets near-daily news coverage. In theory, other candidates have time and democracy-voucher money to raise their profiles.

But the $400,000 limit means none of the candidates will really have the means to advertise aggressively ahead of the primary. That will tend to make the race more about existing name recognition, voters’ pamphlet bios, endorsements from The Seattle Times and The Stranger4, and whatever independent-expenditure money flows in late.

If two of Harrell, Gonzalez, and Farrell make it through to November, then the recipients of more than half of the democracy voucher money (Echohawk and Houston) will likely be out of the race after the August 3 primary.


Footnotes:

  1. That number is a little misleading, as much of Seattle’s property tax base is in its commercial buildings. But no matter how you slice it, the program is a fairly aggressive exercise in wealth distribution with the seriously rich and merely affluent picking up nearly all the tab for the political spending of the entire city.
  2. The democracy voucher program was in place in 2017, but the initiative that created it specifically carved out the mayor’s race for that year.
  3. This is kind of an exploitative racket in which college students and other young people are recruited with the promise that they will Make A Difference by raising small donations from regular folks. The actual goal is usually identifying supporters of whatever cause hired the canvassing firm. Most of the canvassers get summarily fired after a few days or weeks because asking strangers for money is difficult and frequently soul-killing.
  4. It’s hard to imagine the Times endorsing anyone but Harrell in this race. The Stranger, which has been struggling because the pandemic shut down most of its advertisers, is a much more open question. As we noted in our fanciful piece about how Seattle politics might be different under ranked-choice voting, a weird internal struggle in 2017 led The Stranger to endorse Cary Moon, who finished a surprising second in the primary and then lost badly to Durkan.
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Paul Queary, a veteran AP reporter and editor, is founder of The Washington Observer, an independent newsletter on politics, government and the influence thereof in Washington State.

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