Seattle’s primary elections are a sign that a ground-breaking system for putting ordinary voters on a more equal footing with big campaign donors can succeed, supporters say, calling the program “a complete reimagining of politics as usual.”
Tuesday was the first test of the city’s “democracy vouchers,” in which every resident is given four $25 vouchers to contribute to participating candidates of their choice. To qualify to spend their vouchers, candidates must agree to limit their other funding to small donations of $250 or less, and must collect at least 400 such small donations, with signatures.
The system, passed by ballot initiative in 2015, is seen as perhaps the most promising idea to emerge for leveling the campaign-finance playing-field without running afoul of recent Supreme Court decisions that bar limits on many forms of political spending.
In Seattle council races, the top two finishers in the primary advance to the November general election. All four of the advancing candidates in Tuesday’s two council races collected vouchers, though in one of those races, neither candidate has yet collected enough small donations to use them.
Jon Grant, an organizer for low-income tenants who finished second in one of the council races, took in the maximum of $150,000 in vouchers and qualified to use them, allowing him to hold off a business-backed candidate who didn’t participate in the program. Grant had run unsuccessfully in 2015 when he was beaten by a better-funded candidate backed by big donors.
“When you are a candidate that no one has ever heard of and you do the work of organizing low-income tenants for ten years, these are not people with money to give to a political campaign,” Grant, who went door-to-door in low-income communities asking for vouchers and votes, told The Nation recently. “But now all those folks have an equal say in supporting candidates and that is what is so radical about this.”
In total, 8,450 people contributed vouchers to candidates, in just the three races — two city council races and the city attorney race — where vouchers could be used. That figure is expected to rise much higher when the mayor’s race becomes part of the program in 2021.
“Seattle is demonstrating that while voter anger over our big-money system continues to simmer, we have the tools at our fingertips to fix our broken campaign finance system and ensure everyone, not just billionaires, can have their voice heard,” Nick Nyhart, the founding executive of Every Voice, a Washington D.C.-based campaign-finance reform group that has helped advocate for vouchers, said in a statement. “This is a complete reimagining of politics as usual, and it’s working to give those without deep pockets a voice.”
Not everyone likes the idea of democracy vouchers. A conservative group recently filed a lawsuit challenging Seattle’s system, which is funded through a tax on property owners. The lawsuit claims that forcing property owners to subsidize other people’s campaign donations is a violation of free-speech rights.
Photo: Jon Grant speaks at a forum on controlling Seattle rental prices (Grant campaign website)