Other Group

Democracy Voucher Program

Website:

www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher

Location:

Seattle, WA

Type:

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission Program

Founded:

2015

The Democracy Voucher Program is a project created by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to encourage residents to financially support candidates without paying money directly. The program is funded by property tax revenue. [1]

During the 2021 mayoral campaign, a total of 125,445 vouchers were redeemed as of September 2021, translating to $3,136,375 in funding for candidates. [2]

Founding

The Democracy Voucher Program is a voter project created by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) in 2015 to let residents financially support political candidates without funding them directly. [3]

Seattle residents voted to pass the “Honest Elections Seattle” initiative (Initiative Measure 122) in November 2015. The initiative changed campaign finance laws in the city by limiting contributions from contractors and lobbyists and introducing so-called “Democracy Vouchers” distributed to residents by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. [4]

The Democracy Voucher Program is funded by a property tax which raises $3 million per year. Commercial, businesses, and residential properties are affected by the tax, and it costs the average homeowner $8 a year. [5]

Eligible candidates include those running for mayor, city council, or city attorney. The candidates who participate in the Democracy Voucher Program may not use the vouchers to pay for their salary or expenses, make cash payments, reimburse contributions, contribute to other candidates or political committees, or pay family members. [6]

Funding

The Democracy Voucher Program was first used in the 2017 election cycle. Seattle residents received four $25 vouchers that they could use to fund an eligible candidate of their choice. During the election cycle, approximately four percent of Seattle residents participated in the campaign finance system, and 20,727 vouchers were used. In 2019, the number of residents that participated in the Democracy Voucher Program nearly doubled, with 38,092 vouchers returned. [7]

Each voucher contribution is public information and has a maximum value of $100. Eligible candidates receive a substantial amount of money from the Democracy Voucher program. As of September 2021, a total of 125,445 vouchers have been redeemed throughout 2021 which translates to $3,136,375 in funding for candidates. [8] [9]

The largest amount received was by mayoral candidate Lorena Gonzalez. She received 22,729 vouchers, which translate to $568,225 in funding. City attorney candidate Nicole Thomas-Kennedy received $298,075 via 11,923 vouchers, and city council candidate Nikkita Oliver received $288,400 via 11,536 vouchers. [10]

Criticism

The Democracy Voucher Program has been noted to supply candidates with more money but not an increase in votes. Mayoral candidate and former city council staffer Andrew Grant Houston received more vouchers from residents than votes. Houston’s failed 2021 mayoral primary campaign received 13,853 vouchers equaling $346,325 in campaign contributions. Despite this, Houston finished in sixth place with approximately 2.62 percent of the total vote. [11]

According to a report by the Post Millennial, Houston’s campaign spent money on non-campaign-related items such as headphones and meals. It also spent more than $100,000 on political consulting by hiring Prism Washington, a consulting firm that represents and promotes socialist candidates. Houston’s campaign spent approximately $70,000 on online advertising, mailers, and other voter outreach, but spent no money on television advertising or other media. [12]

Houston’s campaign was also criticized due to its democracy voucher collectors. The collectors, some of which were paid subcontractors, used “deceptive pitches,” and did not have any campaign branding excluding clipboards holding replacement vouchers with Houston’s name pre-printed on them. [13]

According to the former chair of King County Young Democrats Derek Richards, one of Houston’s voucher collectors approached him and asked if he would “sign to help the homeless,” and was directed to clipboards holding Democracy Voucher replacement sheets. When Richards noted what the clipboards were holding, the collector moved on to another person. [14]

According to the Washington Observer, the Democracy Voucher Program, alongside other campaign finance reforms, has “essentially moved a big chunk of the political spending in municipal elections onto the taxpayers’ dime.” It also notes that it is easier to encourage residents to fund candidates through the program as the vouchers have no value to the holder. [15]

References

  1. “About the Program,” About the Program – DemocracyVoucher, accessed September 24, 2021, https://www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher/about-the-program. ^
  2. “Program Data,” Program Data – DemocracyVoucher, accessed September 24, 2021, https://www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher/program-data. ^
  3. “About the Program,” About the Program – DemocracyVoucher, accessed September 24, 2021, https://www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher/about-the-program. ^
  4. “About the Program,” About the Program – DemocracyVoucher, accessed September 24, 2021, https://www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher/about-the-program. ^
  5. “About the Program,” About the Program – DemocracyVoucher, accessed September 24, 2021, https://www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher/about-the-program. ^
  6. “About the Program,” About the Program – DemocracyVoucher, accessed September 24, 2021, https://www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher/about-the-program. ^
  7. Lily Goodspeed, “Evaluating Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program,” Fels Institute of Government, accessed September 24, 2021, https://www.fels.upenn.edu/sites/default/files/LilyGoodspeed_Capstone.pdf. ^
  8. “Program Data,” Program Data – DemocracyVoucher, accessed September 24, 2021, https://www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher/program-data. ^
  9. Tim Gruver, “Seattle Mayor RACE’S ‘Democracy Vouchers’ Meant More Money, Not Votes,” Washington Examiner, August 9, 2021, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/politics/seattle-mayor-races-democracy-vouchers-meant-more-money-not-votes. ^
  10. “Program Data,” Program Data – DemocracyVoucher, accessed September 24, 2021, https://www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher/program-data. ^
  11. Ari Hoffman, “Seattle’s ‘Democracy VOUCHER’ Program Questioned as Candidates Bring in More Money than Votes,” The Post Millennial (The Post Millennial, August 8, 2021), https://thepostmillennial.com/seattle-democracy-voucher-program/. ^
  12. Ari Hoffman, “Seattle’s ‘Democracy VOUCHER’ Program Questioned as Candidates Bring in More Money than Votes,” The Post Millennial (The Post Millennial, August 8, 2021), https://thepostmillennial.com/seattle-democracy-voucher-program/. ^
  13. Nathalie Graham, “Elections Commission Proposes New Transparency Requirements for Democracy Voucher Program,” The Stranger, accessed September 24, 2021, https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2021/05/27/57748083/elections-commission-proposes-new-transparency-requirements-for-democracy-voucher-program. ^
  14. Rich Smith, “Here’s Who Leads the Mayoral Race in Fundraising,” The Stranger, accessed September 24, 2021, https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2021/05/07/57153730/houston-and-echohawk-lead-in-fundraising-but-they-took-very-different-paths-to-get-there. ^
  15. Paul Queary, “Primary Takeaways: Seattle Mayoral Also-Ran Houston Had More Donors than Voters,” The Washington Observer (The Washington Observer, August 5, 2021), https://washingtonobserver.substack.com/p/primary-takeaways-seattle-mayoral?fbclid=IwAR2fv69AtxpOSLpNd6nnXV1ymafVOfJzaB3M3fJ9MyKIWG2-0pSZgDKkahU. ^
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Democracy Voucher Program

700 5th Ave
Suite 4010
Seattle, WA