Seattle's 'Democracy Vouchers' Serve as Campaign Welfare for Well-Established Candidates

A program intended to empower voters has instead funneled public money to most organized and funded campaigns.


A voting box

Seattle's Democracy Vouchers were supposed to break the hold of special interests on elections and open up the field to outsider candidates.

Instead the program—which awards Seattle voters a total of $100 that they can donate to qualified local candidates—almost all of the 315,000 tax dollars raised prior to the city's primary election Tuesday have gone to only three candidates, one and incumbent and two politically connected activists.

Regardless of the results of the election, the city of Seattle, as Reason has previously reported is being sued by the Pacific Legal Foundation for promoting a program the foundation says violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The first candidate to qualify for democracy vouchers was incumbent candidate for City Attorney, Pete Holmes, who has so far received $46,050.

City Council Position 8 candidate John Grant, a past president of the Washington Tenants Union, has collected the most money, $150,000 so far. Grant, who's making his second run for at the seat, was the first to register his campaign committee on December 8, 2016, nearly two months ahead of any other candidate.

Teresa Mosqueda, the Political and Strategic Campaign Director for the Washington State Labor Council (the state's AFL-CIO), has pulled in $104,725, as well as garnering endorsements from influential interest groups like Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, and a several unions.

Evan Blevins, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, says it's hardly a surprise the benefits of Democracy Douchers accrue almost exclusively to well-practiced political operatives.

"To receive [the vouchers] you have to leap several hurdles with the Seattle Ethical Elections Commission", he says, including participation in debates and receiving the contributions and signatures from 400 voters.

Rathering than parceling out the four $25 vouchers, Seattle sends all of them out on Jan. 1, encouraging voters to spend their vouchers all at once on the candidates first to the trough.

"It's going to the people they know, who already have campaigns active," Blevins tells Reason. "That's going to be incumbents or well-funded candidates."

In total, $78,000 in Democracy Vouchers were assigned by voters to candidates who never received permission to spend that money. Upstart candidates in the Position 8 race have paid a price.

Hisam Goueli, doctor and political neophyte, did not officially register his campaign until February, and according to the rules, didn't qualify for $14,650 pledged to him until this past Friday, four days before the primary.

"Instead of getting my message out, I'm trying to get Democracy Vouchers," Goueli told the Seattle Times, which is exactly the opposite way the program is supposed to work.

Likewise, council candidate and civil rights activist Sheley Secrest, was pledged $14,350 in Democracy Vouchers, but failed to meet the qualifications to access that money.

Taxing citizens to pay for campaign donations, and then making those donations available only to a selective number of political candidates certainly violates the spirit in which Seattle's Democracy Vouchers were sold to voters. According to Blevins, it likely violates the Constitution as well.

"When you are forced to give a certain amount of money to someone who then uses it to contribute it to a candidate, that's compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment," he says.

That lawsuit, filed in June, is still a long way from resolution.

Seattleites will go to the polls Tuesday, many of them not realizing the questionable program they have underwritten isn't helping any of those dark horses on the ballot.