In November 2015, Seattle voters passed a ballot measure adopting a novel form of progressive public campaign financing known as Democracy Vouchers. It went into effect in 2017 with the laudable intent to increase civic and political participation and reduce the influence of money in politics.
To accomplish this, the program gives all Seattle residents four $25 vouchers that they can use to financially support candidates running for local office. Any candidate participating in the voucher system is required to adhere to reduced contributor-contribution limits ($300 per donor for a district level race) and campaign spending caps.
As progressive campaign professionals, we have now had sufficient time to understand the real world impacts of Seattle’s embrace of Democracy Vouchers. In truth, those impacts have been mixed. That is because, despite its noble intentions, the current program has several glaring flaws that need to be addressed.
The first and most immediately pressing issue for campaigns is that the spending caps have not been changed to reflect inflation, or to reflect the reality of what it costs to pay for staff and for voter contact in order to effectively communicate the candidate’s message to voters. As it stands right now, district level candidates participating in the Democracy Voucher program have a $93,750 spending cap in the primary, and the same amount in the general, totaling $187,500 for the campaign. This might sound like plenty of money, but in the context of building the infrastructure for an effective campaign, as well as communicating with voters in a district with more than 106,000 residents, it’s counterproductive to set the limits this low.
The problem is city campaigns tend to launch early in the election cycle – just take a look at how many City Council candidates entered the fray in January – while our primary takes place relatively late, in August. This means candidates who launch earlier accrue campaign infrastructure costs that leave them with very few funds to spend on direct voter contact come voting. This places campaigns in a very difficult spot, pitting hiring staff and paying them a living wage against having enough funds to reach voters.
It also means that candidates who are closely tied to established, deep-pocketed political players like the business community or organized labor gain a major advantage. This is because they are likely to benefit from outside, uncapped PAC independent expenditure (IE) campaigns. IE campaigns are so called because they are not allowed to directly coordinate on campaign strategy and messaging with the campaign of the candidate they are supporting. Meanwhile, other candidates who don’t come from connected backgrounds are under the highly restrictive spending cap, left with little funds to get their message out.
There’s no question that this flaw in the Democracy Vouchers program has contributed to the increasingly outsized influence of independent expenditures on local elections. In the 2019 City Council elections, PAC’s spent nearly $4 million on independent expenditures, which is nearly four times(!) more than what PACs spent in the 2017 elections. In 2021, with only four citywide positions at stake, PACs spent $3.5 million on independent expenditures. With seven seats up this year, four of which will not have an incumbent seeking reelection, we expect IE spending to exceed the $4 million spent in 2019.
This increased level of PAC spending severely undermines the goal of the voucher program to level the playing field in elections, making it much harder for candidates that aren’t supported by monied organizations to make a case for their election and respond to independent expenditures.
To complicate matters, this outside spending often makes the spending caps illusory, because the voucher program allows candidate campaigns to petition for the caps to be lifted if the combined spending on behalf of an opponent exceeds the cap. This safety valve isn’t as helpful as it might seem, because campaigns can’t count on the cap being lifted, and so have to plan their strategy as if it will remain in place. And if the cap does get lifted, this typically happens late in the campaign season, leading a very short window to a scramble to raise additional funds beyond the cap level.
A second major concern is that the promise of vouchers to increase participation is belied by the reality that voter turnout in Seattle remains lower than one would hope, particularly in communities of color. According to data from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, voter turnout in the 2019 primary elections for City Council District 2 (Southeast Seattle) was only 25.2 percent, which is the lowest among all seven council districts and significantly below the citywide average of 32.2 percent. Additionally, District 2 has the highest proportion of residents of color among all council districts, with a population that is over 50 percent non-white. So it’s not clear that vouchers have done much to actually engage and empower these communities.
Finally, we have concerns that, with Seattle Ethics and Elections’ recent move to try to restrict paid voucher collection, the voucher collection process has been made more difficult, which makes it harder for campaign workers to do their jobs. While residents are mailed physical vouchers in February, typically these days campaigns collect vouchers by contacting or connecting with supporters and having them fill out a “voucher replacement form” which can be filed electronically. That has now become harder to do.
To be clear, our concern is with respect to paid campaign staff like campaign managers and field organizers, not paid signature (or voucher) gatherers. The new restriction could make it harder for campaigns to raise the necessary funds to pay for their own work, which puts workers at greater risk of not being paid. We’re concerned that in some cases they may end up doing unpaid voucher collection work to raise the money to fund the campaigns on whose payroll they are on.
To address these issues, several solutions should be considered. One solution would be to increase the spending caps or get rid of them altogether (since with increased IE spending the caps often eventually get lifted anyway), while keeping the same per-individual campaign-contribution limits. Combining this with the recently introduced rules banning paid voucher collection would follow the spirit of the original intent of the voucher program while ensuring campaigns are able to pay for staff and direct voter contact.
Another solution would be to impose stricter limits on independent expenditures to reduce their influence on elections. This could be achieved by increasing transparency and disclosure requirements for independent expenditure committees, or perhaps by limiting the amount of money that can be spent on independent expenditures. Because of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, any attempt to do this could run into a legal roadblock.
A third solution would be to increase the budget allocated to the program to allow for more outreach and education to underrepresented communities. This would help to increase voter turnout and ensure that the program is reaching its intended audience.
Finally, the replacement voucher collection process should be re-evaluated to make it easier for campaign workers to do their jobs. This could be achieved by simplifying the process, or by providing additional resources to help campaign workers navigate the system.
While Democracy Vouchers are a well-intentioned attempt at reforming our elections, the current version is flawed and in need of reform. By increasing the caps on campaign spending, increasing the budget allocated to the program, potentially imposing stricter limits on independent expenditures, and re-evaluating the replacement voucher collection process, we can vastly improve the effectiveness of the Democracy Vouchers program so it is able to achieve its goal of promoting fair and representative elections in Seattle.