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Democracy vouchers are back, but do they neutralize big money in local politics?

Seattle democracy voucher
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John Ryan / KUOW

As Seattle City Council races heat up, election officials are mailing out Democracy vouchers on Tuesday.

The Democracy Voucher Program is Seattle’s system for public financing of city elections. It’s designed to combat big money in local political campaigns, and to ease the financial burden that prevents many cash-strapped households from donating to local races.

Democracy vouchers are a bit like grocery store coupons. Each resident gets four $25 vouchers that can be donated to the candidates of their choice. You don’t need to be a U.S. citizen to donate vouchers — you just need to be over 18 and a permanent resident of Seattle with a green card.

The program was the first of its kind in the nation when it passed in 2015. Voters have been using it since 2017, but only in odd-numbered years when there are local races. The last time voters got these vouchers in their mailbox was 2021. This year, up to $5.25 million will be available for residents to donate to city council candidates.

So how have these vouchers worked the last few years? Have they made a noticeable difference in our city elections?

Advocates told KUOW the program has been working as an antidote to the flood of campaign cash that now pours into local elections all across the country. Critics said the vouchers do not effectively address Seattle’s problem with money in politics and have some serious unintended consequences.

Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig came up with the idea after the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision in 2010, which effectively opened up a firehose of campaign cash, allowing corporations and other outside groups to flood elections with unlimited amounts of money.

Since big money can’t be stopped, Seattle’s voucher program attempts to neutralize it by injecting public funding into the system, paid for through a property tax of around $3 million a year.

“Big, wealthy corporate campaign donors are pushing regular people out of the process,” then-City Council member Mike O’Brien said in 2015 to encourage Seattle voters to pass the voucher initiative. Voters responded, and the initiative passed with more than 63% of the vote.

Since then, the program has received mostly glowing national coverage and other places are considering their own versions. Oakland, California, recently adopted a voucher program, and lawmakers in Minnesota and Washington are weighing voucher bills this year.

Voucher advocates point to two positive developments since 2017. First, there are many more people donating to Seattle’s city elections. Seattle now has the biggest and most diverse donor pool in the country, with 7.6% of the voting-age population donating vouchers in 2021, according to one recent academic analysis of the program.

More candidates are running for local office, advocates say. It’s unclear whether this is a direct cause of vouchers, but they point out that Seattle saw an 86% increase in the number of city council candidates running in 2019 compared to other recent council elections.

Jake Grumbach, a professor of political science who studies election reform, argues that those results suggest the program is working as intended to challenge some of the underlying problems with money in politics.

“How money in politics works is people tap their social networks of elite classmates for some seed funding, and they self-finance with their own wealth, and become a viable candidate,” Grumbach explained.

Grumbach said he thinks democracy vouchers can change that equation, at least for some candidates.

“You make it easier to enter local politics as a candidate without having a base of your own money and private donors that you already know,” he said.

That’s the theory, anyway, and in practice, there was a dramatic increase in the number of candidates in the 2019 council races. But it’s worth noting that in 2021, the number of mayoral candidates dropped by around 30% compared to 2017.

Grumbach also said the increase in the number of donors is an important step in changing who politicians listen to before and after they’re elected.

“The hope is that this causes candidates and politicians to spend more time around ordinary people rather than a select group that donates private money in large amounts in local politics,” Grumbach said.

But Grumbach conceded that there’s a much bigger problem with money in politics that the program does not address — the deluge of campaign cash into elections after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. This is called “outside” or “independent” spending by groups that work on behalf of candidates but are not supposed to coordinate directly with their campaigns.

After vouchers, independent spending in Seattle dramatically increased. It nearly quadrupled in the 2019 city council races, and almost tripled in 2021 when the city had its first mayoral race with vouchers.

Local political consultant and self-described progressive Michael Charles, who is running several Seattle City Council campaigns this year, argues that the voucher program itself provoked some of that massive increase in outside spending.

“There's been a significant shift in the way we fund our campaigns, and that funding has led to worse outcomes,” Charles said. “Even more so than ever, the candidates that are getting through the primary are the ones that are being supported by special interests.”

Charles argues that, as the outside groups become as powerful or even more powerful than the campaigns themselves, it’s bad for democracy.

There’s also the question of how much vouchers are actually changing election results. Critics say no candidate has won in a general election who would not have otherwise done well without the voucher program.

In the 2021 mayoral election, for example, a number of candidates received vouchers. But the two campaigns that also saw hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending on their behalf are the ones that made it through the primary to the general election.

Meanwhile, another reform has reduced the amount of money corporations can contribute directly in local campaigns. The “Clean Campaigns Act” was passed by the city council late in 2019, after Amazon contributed over $1 million to try and tip the scales in that year’s city council races.

The law prohibits “foreign-influenced” corporations from contributing to local campaigns — defining “foreign influenced” as any company like Amazon that has stock owned by non-U.S. citizens.

But money finds a way. After that law passed, some wealthy donors in Seattle formed a PAC that contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of the winning candidate, Bruce Harrell.

Harrell’s opponent was former council member Lorena González, who also saw hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on her behalf by labor unions and other groups that were not prohibited from participating under the “Clean Campaigns Act” that she sponsored.

“The fundamental challenge of campaign finance regulation is that money tends to be like water flowing in a river," Grumbach said. "You can block and dam parts of that river, but the money is going to tend to find its way around.”

But Grumbach argued that, despite those limitations, Seattle’s voucher system should be given a chance to grow.

“I actually do think other reforms, absent Citizens United, would potentially be more effective at improving democracy with respect to money in politics, but democracy vouchers are an opening,” he said.

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