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$100 in Monopoly money—and just maybe, a better democracy—headed your way, Seattle

caption: A Seattle democracy voucher.
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A Seattle democracy voucher.
KUOW Photo/John Ryan

In January, registered voters in Seattle will get something in the mail that no American has gotten before.

They’re called democracy vouchers, and the city will mail $100 worth of them to each Seattle voter.

Before that happens, voters across the state will decide whether everyone in Washington should get something similar in their mailboxes, too.

Seattle's experiment with a more democratic way of paying for politics is just getting under way, with the newly expanded staff of the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission putting the system in place.

No such thing as a free voucher

A hundred bucks in the mail may sound like a sweet deal, but Seattleites paid for those vouchers with their property taxes, and they can’t just spend that $100 anywhere.

Voters and permanent residents, who will be able to sign up to receive vouchers, can sign their four $25 vouchers over to campaigns for Seattle city attorney and two city council races in 2017.

City council candidates must qualify to receive vouchers: 1) At least 400 people have to donate $10 to their campaign and 2) They must agree to spend no more than $300,000 running for the office.

The new and somewhat complicated system was approved by Seattle voters last year.

It also prohibits donations from government contractors and any groups that do at least $5,000 of lobbying.

Very few people make political contributions today. This new way of paying for politics is intended to make our democracy less beholden to the few people with the deepest pockets.

"You're giving something, you want to receive something in exchange," said Valentina Bello, a voter in Magnolia. "It might be a really good way of getting candidates and eventually officials to be more accountable for what they do."

Bello was part of a focus group the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission organized to find out if voters will be confused by these new democracy vouchers. Would they bother using the vouchers? Would they throw them out, thinking they're junk mail?

Focus group participant Esteban Gamboa of Beacon Hill said the vouchers seem straightforward enough.

"Pretty simple to follow, and I think for the general public, it'll be pretty easy to understand," Gamboa said.

Bello said she's happy that even permanent residents who can't vote, like green card holders, can get support candidates with these vouchers. Bello has been a U.S. citizen for three years after immigrating from Venezuela, where she said elections were often fraudulent. She said she's excited to take part in her first U.S. presidential election.

"Please, people, go vote," she said. "It's a privilege. This country has a system that works."

Bello said Seattle's public financing of campaigns could enable different kinds of candidates – people who don't have lots of money or rich backers.

"I think it's really, really cool that Seattle's doing this as the first city in the country," she said. "I'm really excited about us being pioneers in this very interesting new way of funding campaigns."

Confusing politicians

Seattleites will have from January to November to sign over the vouchers. That means they have up to 11 months to hold onto these pieces of paper without losing them.

Even if residents embrace this unfamiliar system, the question remains whether politicians will. The traditional way, after all, yields more money.

“It is confusing,” Seattle City Council president Bruce Harrell said after presiding over a city council meeting on the voucher system. "People are not going to know what to do with these."

Harrell said he's concerned about the voucher system running out of money if more than 18 candidates run for the three qualifying offices next year – and the possibility of organizations unduly influencing how residents direct their voucher.

Only two city council members are up for reelection next year. Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez said she will use the voucher system. Councilmember Tim Burgess and city attorney Pete Holmes said they're still deciding whether to run at all.

"I’m still trying, to be perfectly honest, to understand how this complex statute works," Holmes said. Given other funding needs like homelessness and police reform, he said, "I’m a little concerned about how much money we want to devote to something like this."

For now, there’s nothing like this system in the U.S.

Voters here and in South Dakota face a choice this fall of whether to set up something similar. Washington's Initiative 1464, in addition to tightening controls on individual donations along the lines of Seattle's system, would distribute $150 in vouchers to all legal Washington residents. The funds would come from eliminating the sales tax break for nonresidents shopping inside the state.

I-1464 would also force more transparency on political committees that often have misleading names. Political ads already disclose their top five donors, but usually in fine print and often revealing little more than mysterious names like My Vote Counts or The Leadership Council. I-1464 would require those groups' funders to be revealed instead until real donors — people, businesses or unions — are revealed.

The I-1464 campaign, run by a committee called Integrity Washington, has been funded mostly by activists and their wealthy supporters on the East Coast.

Only one-fourth of Integrity Washington's $3.5 million campaign for I-1464 has been paid for by people living in Washington state, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission.

And most of the in-state contributions have come from just one person: Connie Ballmer, philanthropist and wife of Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer. She gave $500,000.

Contributions to Integrity Washington (I-1464 campaign) by state

SOURCE: Public Disclosure Commission as of Oct. 24. Graphic: KUOW/Abraham Epton

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