Before I left the Seattle City Council at the end of 2015, I helped fashion the only-in-Seattle Democracy Voucher Program (DVP). The idea was first proposed by Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig and backed locally by Sightline Institute, a Northwest think tank. The council then worked out the many details and submitted Initiative 122 to the voters, who passed it.
Now that the program has been operating through three elections, it’s time to assess whether or not democracy vouchers have been able to achieve the goals supporters claimed for the program, weighing the good and bad consequences.
How do vouchers work? Simply put, the vouchers (paid for by a small property tax) enable all Seattle residents to donate a kind of play-money to local candidates. Early in election years, city residents are sent four $25 vouchers that can be used to support a single candidate or more who receive these vouchers and can cash them in for their campaign expenses. To be eligible to get this city money, candidates must qualify by signing up and getting $10 donations from a set number of supporters (600 for mayor, 400 for at-large council posts, and 150 for a district seat). Those who opt for the program (some like Councilmember Kshama Sawant did not) must agree to limit the size of contributions and campaign expenditures.
Democracy vouchers were originally sold to voters who overwhelmingly approved the so-called “Honest Elections” initiative. Former Councilmember Mike O’Brien argued it would “keep big wealthy corporations from pushing regular people out the process.” He claimed candidates could spend less time buttering up wealthy donors and would instead talk voters into signing over vouchers.
The program debuted modestly in 2017 with vouchers used in the two at-large council seats and the city attorney race. In 2019, vouchers were used in all seven district council contests. But the real test of the system is happening this year when vouchers can be used for the first time in the mayor’s race.
As voters became familiar with vouchers, several of the program’s goals were being achieved. While only 1.3 percent of Seattle residents contributed to campaigns in 2015 (before the vouchers’ debut), by 2017, the first year of the program, 3.4 percent gave donations. In 2019, that number grew to 7 percent of the population. Another positive factor was an increase in the percentage of contributions raised from within the city. In years before vouchers the share varied from 65 to 80 percent of local donations; afterward it grew to 93 percent. More residents were supporting city campaigns.
Another good outcome was that campaign donors more closely matched overall city demographics. Similarly, the number of candidates entering city races increased in both number and diversity. All these were goals promised when voters approved the program. These good outcomes are the reason that several other jurisdictions — Philadelphia among them — are looking seriously at adopting the Seattle system. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic candidate for president, even suggested doing democracy vouchers on a national level.
But along with the gains through using this unique form of public financing, there also have been some adverse consequences. One important outcome has been the increasing clout of independent expenditures. Political action committees like “Essential Workers for Lorena” (Gonzalez) and (Bruce) “Harrell4Seattle’s Future” grew in number and size. PACs are prohibited from coordinating with a candidate’s campaign, but there are no upper limits on contributions. While a recent law, sponsored by Council President Gonzalez, restricted expenditures by corporations with foreign investors (got that, Amazon?), well-heeled individual donors apparently aren’t shy about dropping $50,000 or more to support a favored candidate, and these donors often work at large corporations.
In pre-DVP days, the total of independent spending in Seattle totaled $785,000. In 2019 that shot up to $4.2 million. Today the tape is still running but it figures to be more than seven times pre-2015 spending. So much for getting big wealth out of elections.
Another adverse consequence — one that was predicted in 2015 by opponents of DVP — has been the rise of public-affairs firms that harvest democracy vouchers for candidates, thus obtaining a fat share of that city tax money. Take the case of Andrew Grant Houston, a 32-year-old architect and newcomer to the city, who decided to run for mayor on an audacious platform ($23 minimum wage, 2,500 tiny houses, and Barcelona super blocks). Houston hired Prism West, a political consulting team that specializes in signature gathering
Prism West hired a large number of subcontractors — some of whom earned an average of $1,000 a week. The contractors excelled at persuading residents to sign away their vouchers. Houston’s campaign collected $342,058.79, the most democracy dollars of any of the mayoral candidates. The campaign then paid Prism West $149,526.72 for its services. Oddly enough that bounty of taxpayer dollars failed to translate into many votes. Houston, who had 5,000 contributing donors, netted just 5,485 votes, 2.7 percent of the total vote for mayor and earning a woeful seventh-place finish.
That outcome led some to speculate that Houston’s campaign may have been more of a money-raising exercise than an attempt to get elected. Yet the scheme was fully legal according to Seattle Ethics and Elections Director Wayne Barnett. He pointed out that Prism West was the Houston campaign’s authorized representative and duplicate vouchers were provided to Prism “the same as for any other campaign.” (Duplicate vouchers — the same as replacement vouchers — were used by Prism contractors to facilitate donations collected at light rail stations.)
This voucher-harvesting technique may soon be duplicated by Nicole S. Thomas-Kennedy, a candidate for city attorney. According to recent filings, Thomas-Kennedy’s campaign so far has netted $184,200 in democracy vouchers and has paid Prism West $3,648.94. But reports show the campaign owes Prism an additional $92,708.30. At the moment, Prism is netting about half the voucher money raised for her campaign.
Obviously under the Citizens United decision, there is nothing that can be done to limit the increasingly large amounts of cash being poured into independent expenditure campaigns. Nothing can be done except to make jokes about the unions — chief among them Unite Here, the hospitality workers union that spent $177,000 to supply voters with dried cherries to back Lorena Gonzalez’s run for mayor. (That pencils out to $3.84 per mailing of shriveled fruit.)
The voucher harvest suggests a civic discussion is in order. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, the citizen body that interprets, administers, and enforces the Seattle Elections Code, has the power to oversee election procedures and make recommendations to the council on any needed changes.
On the whole, the Seattle democracy voucher program seems to have done more overall good than harm to municipal elections. Gains include more city-wide participation in campaigns, broader demographic involvement, and a boost for unknown or younger candidates who otherwise would be unlikely to run for office.
One irony, for those concerned about getting big money out of politics, is that voters in the Seattle mayoral race gave this year’s primary win — just as it did in 2017 — to the candidates who attracted the most money. Four years ago that was Jenny Durkan and Carey Moon. This year it’s Bruce Harrell and Lorena Gonzalez.