Approved by city voters in 2015, the Democracy Voucher program sets aside a new pot of property tax money to give four, $25 campaign vouchers to the each of the city’s registered voters. Those voters, in turn, can pick which candidates or candidate get their vouchers taxpayer money. In exchange, participating candidates agree to spending caps.
From my post: Proponent Aaron Ostrom, executive director of the progressive activist organization Fuse Washington, hailed the program’s launch. “This is an exciting chance to strengthen democracy and level the playing field in Seattle,“ Ostrom said. ”Candidates can compete based on their values and leadership abilities rather than their connections to wealthy friends and corporate donors.”
In June I reported on how the program had so far redistributed $230,000 of taxpayer money to three candidates participating in the democracy voucher program. From my post: The only program of its type in the country, the vouchers experiment was geared for three primary effects: Taking the big money out of local politics; improving voter participation rates; and bringing new candidates to the process.
So how is the “democracy voucher” program doing in terms of “leveling the playing field” and “taking big money out of local politics?” Just as you would expect…
Bob Young reports for the Seattle Times that Amazon dumped $250,000 into the political action committee (PAC) of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce this month, part of the $667,728 the PAC has amassed in advance of Tuesday’s primary election.
From his report: Unlike candidates, PACs can collect unlimited amounts. And 50 corporations, business groups and individuals account for the vast majority of the chamber’s political arsenal.
The PAC has already started spending on newspaper and social-media ads through so-called independent expenditure (IE) campaigns in City Council and mayoral races. Those IE campaigns can’t coordinate with candidates — and they don’t face spending caps like candidates who take democracy vouchers.
Alan Durning, who helped author I-122, said he’s pleased with how it’s working so far on its “shakedown cruise” in City Council races, which for the primary means Positions 8 and 9. It has helped a couple of candidates compete with well-funded rivals, said Durning, executive director of the nonprofit Sightline Institute.
As for the chamber’s bulging kitty, Durning said he doesn’t think it has much to do with the four $25 vouchers sent to every registered voter in Seattle. He sees it as part of a national trend in elections flowing from a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision barring restrictions on independent political expenditures by corporations, unions and other groups.
Bob Mahon, a former chairman of the watchdog Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, disagrees. Mahon said it’s not likely money will be squeezed out of politics by I-122, “but will be driven to less transparent forms of expenditures including IEs.”
There isn’t enough evidence to show democracy vouchers are causing this, Mahon said. But there is a correlation developing, he said, that increased IEs are occurring after limits were lowered on contributions to candidates. The chamber PAC already has raised more than it did for the 2013 and 2015 city elections combined.
More from Mr. Young’s story: Vouchers and IEs have been most prominent in the primary for City Council Position 8. Moneywise, three candidates stand out in a deep field (the top two vote-getters on Tuesday, as in all primary races, advance to the Nov. 7 general election).
Jon Grant, an affordable-housing activist, set out in the winter to start gathering vouchers. Grant accumulated the maximum amount in voucher-contributions, $150,000, allowed in the primary under the agreed-upon spending cap. Teresa Mosqueda, a labor-movement leader, was the second council candidate to qualify. As of Friday, Mosqueda had $104,825 in vouchers.
Sara Nelson, a business owner and former City Council aide, chose not to use vouchers, so she is not tied to a spending cap or lower maximum contributions ($250 as opposed to $500). Nelson has received $130,335 in contributions, with nearly half coming from $500-maximum contributions.
An IE campaign supporting her, People for Sara Nelson, has reported $120,696 in contributions and spending obligations. The chief donors are the chamber’s PAC — whose biggest contributors are Amazon, Vulcan and developer Richard Hedreen — and a hotel and restaurant group, Seattle Hospitality for Progress.
Under I-122 rules, when the IE backing Nelson and her own campaign contributions exceeded the primary spending cap that Grant and Mosqueda had agreed to, it triggered a sort of fairness doctrine: Those two were then free to collect and spend contributions above the cap.
During the 2015 campaign for democracy vouchers, critics including Mahon predicted I-122 would lead to such a “double-dip” with candidates raising the full amount of vouchers, then opting out of spending caps and raising unlimited additional campaign cash.
Read the rest of the story here.