Democracy Vouchers — Seattle’s novel public financing program — have been gaining in popularity with the voting public through three elections (2017-21). Already a similar program, christened Democracy Dollars, is set to begin in Oakland in 2026.
In days prior to Tuesday’s (Aug. 1) Seattle primary, the 45 candidates vying for seven city council seats raised $1.8 million, with a large percentage raised through Democracy Vouchers. To qualify for the program, candidates opted to collect at least 150 in small donations, limit the size of individual cash contributions to $300, and cap primary spending at $93,750.
With four open seats, this year’s contests produced some significant results, including races in which two challengers have outraised incumbents. Research by Kevin Schofield, founder of Seattle City Council Insight, put campaign fundraising into perspective. He identified two political consultants with oversized roles in fundraising for leading candidates. The two: Bellevue-based Katherine Bobman Consulting and Blue Wave Political Partners, which is well connected nationally.
Bobman provided fundraising services for District 3 candidate Joy Hollingsworth as well as incumbents Tammy Morales (D2) and Dan Strauss (D6). Blue Wave worked for Alex Hudson (D3), Pete Hanning (D6), and Ron Saka (D1), charging each $3,750 per month. Schofield noted that Bobman is charging Morales $2,750 per month and Hollingsworth and Strauss, $2,250.
While the consultants continue to work to encourage voucher donations, their operations deviate from hefty per-voucher fees charged to candidates by Prism West in past elections. Prism hired contract workers who set up tables street-side and made use of replacement vouchers. Since the 2021 elections, the Seattle Ethics & Elections Commission, which oversees the program, passed a rule stating that workers cannot be compensated for harvesting replacement vouchers.
However, a rundown of campaign data for a half dozen leading candidates shows just how important vouchers — acquired in a variety of ways such as house parties and doorbelling — have become in funding campaigns:
The voucher program, approved by voters in 2015 and first used in 2017 elections, is funded by a small percentage addition to city property taxes. Authorized for ten years, the tax raises $3 million a year and costs around $8 per median city household. The program provides each registered voters with $100 (four $25 vouchers) to spend on qualifying candidates.
After Seattle’s 2021 municipal elections, Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy did a detailed analysis of the Democracy Voucher program across three elections. The study found vastly increased public participation among donors. Numbers of vouchers used rose from 20,727 in 2017 to 38,297 in 2019. By 2021, more than 48,000 Seattle voters were using vouchers in contests that elected the mayor, city attorney, and two at-large councilmembers.
The Georgetown study found large gains in participation by diverse demographic groups (more people of color, young voters, and those with lower incomes.) That increased diversity and involvement was mirrored in numbers of cash donations as well. Another benefit: a larger share of contributions was coming from within the city. In 2017, local donors contributed 70 percent; by 2021, local donors accounted for 93 percent of campaign receipts to qualified candidates.
Between 2017-21, participation rate for Democracy Vouchers rose across all racial groups with the largest percentage increases among Black and Hispanic residents. All ethnic groups showed gains. One unexpected finding: Nine percent of women contributed vouchers, compared to 7.5 percent of men.
In the aftermath of the 2021 elections, rule adjustments were made by the seven-member Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which oversees the Democracy Voucher Program. Foremost among the tweaks was a rule change that banned payment to contractors for harvesting of vouchers. That technique had funded at least one campaign in 2021 with more voucher-contributors than votes and led to calls for an end to such abuses of the system.
However, there remain some objections to the program. One political observer noted that the lower donation limits ($300 plus possible $100 vouchers) “makes it hard to raise enough money to communicate with the voters.” Another observer worries that, because total spending is limited, name familiarity becomes harder to achieve, especially before the primary. There also are complaints that the system, by limited funding for challengers, benefits incumbents who are normally have greater name recognition.
One unintended but predictable consequence of the system has been the increasing clout of independent political action committees. While candidates’ campaigns cannot work with the PACs, there are no limits on how much PACs can spend on behalf of a candidate. As Schofield observes, “Seattle is falling into a pattern. Fundraising in the primary is dominated by vouchers, most of which is spent trying to get name recognition to survive the primary. Then like clockwork the fundraising limits get lifted in the general election for candidates because of all the money that the PACs raised.”
This year, however, two of the PACs emerged early and spent in the primary. One business community PAC supported Rob Saka in D1 (West Seattle) and another with similar donors backed Maritza Rivera in D4 (University District). An SEIU group has been spending on behalf of Nilu Jenks in D5 (North Seattle). The system, theoretically designed to keep big money at bay, apparently has its flaws.
Ironically, when Democracy Vouchers were on the ballot in 2015, then Councilmember Mike O’Brien sold the program to voters as a means to keep corporations from pushing regular people out of the electoral process. Even if big money still plays a role, there are undeniable benefits to the program, particularly in widening participation.
Seattle’s experience with the program has proven attractive to other municipalities. SEEC’s Executive Director Wayne Barnett said that he has had inquiries from a number of cities, mostly located in California, but even some queries from megacities like New York City.
The Georgetown study noted that “one of the central goals of the Democracy Voucher program has been to improve representative equality for communities typically marginalized within the campaign finance systems.” In summary, the study concluded “Seattle has made significant strides forward. The pool [of donors] has come to more closely resemble active and registered voters.”