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'Suggested donations' are OK for Seattle democracy vouchers

caption: Shaun Scott is running to represent Northeast Seattle on the city council.
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Shaun Scott is running to represent Northeast Seattle on the city council.
KUOW/Amy Radil

Democracy vouchers are helping Seattle City Council candidates finance their campaigns. But political opponents are watching for missteps.

Seattle candidates cannot offer a drink or other "goods" in exchange for democracy vouchers. But they can “suggest” that voters bring the vouchers to campaign events.

The group Safe Seattle accused candidate Shaun Scott of violating the rules for democracy vouchers by billing an upcoming event as “free with suggested $50 democracy voucher donation.”

“You can't make people hand over their vouchers in order to get in to an event,” Safe Seattle wrote on Facebook, calling Scott’s language “tricky and misleading.”

But Scott and the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission said there's nothing wrong with his wording.

Scott is a Democratic Socialist running to represent Northeast Seattle. He said no one will be turned away from his event for not bringing vouchers and noted that he has raised more funds through democracy vouchers than any other candidate so far.

“We have been great representatives of the democracy voucher program up to this point,” Scott said. “The last thing that we would want to do is defraud the program or use the program for ulterior means.”

Scott, who is African-American, said these types of accusations are one of the reasons people of color can be reluctant to run for office. “We face higher levels of scrutiny; the standards that we’re subject to are a lot more exacting,” he said.

Commission executive director Wayne Barnett said Scott checked with him and was told that that suggested voucher donations “don’t violate the section of the voucher law that bars buying and selling vouchers.”

“What we can’t have is people getting something in exchange," Barnett said.

Every Seattle voter has been issued $100 worth of democracy vouchers to donate to City Council candidates in the seven district races on the ballot this year. The vouchers are funded by a voter-approved property tax, and were first used in 2017 in races for City Attorney and at-large City Council members.

David Preston is the managing editor of Safe Seattle’s Facebook page. He said Scott violated “the spirit if not the letter” of the voucher program by suggesting the voucher donation at the door was required.

Preston condemned the vouchers as “Monopoly money” and said he’s disappointed that the SEEC hasn’t taken stronger measures against program violations.

As a candidate himself for City Council in 2017, Preston filed a complaint against incumbent Seattle City Councilmember Lorena González for failing to attend three public forums as a condition to obtain democracy vouchers.

The commission ruled that González had not met the conditions, but declined to issue a penalty since the program was brand-new, stating that “moving forward, we expect all candidates to meet this program requirement.”

González was also criticized in 2017 for holding a campaign event that promised “your first beer is on us!” in exchange for a democracy voucher. The campaign later withdrew that language.

1/3 Democracy Vouchers for Seattle Elections
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2/3 Democracy Vouchers for Seattle Elections
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3/3 Democracy Voucher for Seattle Elections
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KUOW Illustration/Kara McDermott

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