Seattle’s political campaigns could see a shakeup, as the city launches its democracy voucher program giving four $25 vouchers to adult residents to give to people running for citywide offices.
Supporters hope the program boosts the diversity of people involved in politics either by getting behind a candidate or by running for office themselves.
The program doesn’t change the qualification of who can run for office or who can vote. But with every adult Seattle resident who is a U.S. citizen, U.S. national or green card holder being able to contribute up to $100 to city political campaigns, the program could change the make up of people who choose to run and get deeply involved in politics.
Monica Ng, civic engagement program director at Asian Counseling and Referral Service, has been reaching out to immigrant communities to encourage them to use the vouchers.
“Many of them are coming from home countries that don’t have a word for democracy,” said Ng, who is on a city committee overseeing the program. “Voting isn’t necessarily a safe practice for people. Given the current climate around immigrants and refugees, people want to know where their information is going, who is getting this, trying to keep their families safe.”
Debbie Carlsen, the founder and executive director of the LGBTQ Allyship, also is on the committee and aims to make sure the program doesn’t exclude people.
“For trans folks, nonconforming folks, low-income people of color, immigrants and homeless individuals, there might be barriers to voting,” Carlsen said. “I am here to ensure inclusivity.”
According to the Sightline Institute, Seattle campaign money overwhelmingly comes from neighborhoods that are disproportionately populated by people who are rich and white. The think-tank reported that in 2013, 1.5 percent of Seattle’s adults gave contributions to candidates, and two-thirds of all the money came from 0.3 percent of Seattle adults.
“Only 1 to 2 percent of the population donates to political campaigns in the city of Seattle,” Democracy Voucher program manager René LeBeau said. “That means that 98 percent don’t participate in the process. The program aims to look at this general lack of participation.”
To address this, Seattle voters adopted Initiative 22 in 2015, which known as “Honest Elections Seattle” (I-122). Voters approved a property tax to fund four $25 vouchers for every Seattle resident to give to city candidates of their choosing. The tax brings in a maximum of $3 million every year for the next 10 years, which costs homeowners roughly $11.50 per year.
Registered voters are automatically registered for the program, and people are eligible to apply for the program if they are a Seattle resident, at least 18 years of age, and a U.S. citizen, U.S. national or a lawful permanent resident.
In addition to the democracy vouchers, I-122 enacted several campaign finance reforms, such as establishing campaign contribution limits for lobbyists and contractors.
The Democracy Vouchers and related materials are available in 15 different languages in order to ensure participation from members of diverse communities around Seattle. Democracy Vouchers will also be accessible for homeless individuals in Seattle, as the Seattle Elections and Ethics Commission already has mechanisms for engaging with those who don’t have a permanent address.
Residents write the name of the candidate they want to receive the money directly on the voucher, and can either mail or email their vouchers into the SEEC or give them directly to qualified candidates.
For the 2017 election cycle, only city council and city attorney candidates qualify for the program. The mayor’s race will be added the program in 2021. To qualify, anyone seeking public office must register as a candidate and file required reports, submit the Qualifying Contribution Petition, follow all candidate campaign reporting requirements, and sign a candidate pledge agreeing to abide by the rules of the program. The SEEC office is keeping a list of candidates who have applied or qualified for the funding. As of June 29, the office collected 19,581 vouchers.
If Democracy Vouchers take off, it could change patterns of political giving in Seattle, and empower those typically disenfranchised by the campaign funding process to reclaim their vote and their voice.
Hopes of greater participation
The program also could boost political participation in communities that typically don’t have the financial means to contribute to a candidate.
“In general, folks are excited,” Ng said. “They don’t have to make the decision between paying for school supplies or gas and supporting a campaign they care about.”
The committee also ensures different community groups throughout Seattle get access to information about the vouchers.
“I am here to bring in an intersectional lens, make sure the language they are using is gender neutral, [ensure they are] not assuming heteronormative family structures, ensure that vouchers are in languages accessible to marginalized immigrants,” Carlsen said.
Carlsen said getting attention for the program has is not always as easy as it has been for other issues.
“Reactions have been mixed,” Carlsen said. “People are not as enthusiastic or interested in this as they are in an issue like housing justice, for example. We’re noticing that people are more interested in issues that directly impact them, versus this system solution.”
LeBeau said that candidates who qualify also are spreading the word about the program.
“Candidates are really the best advertisement the program has; a third of the vouchers we’ve received so far have been collected by candidates themselves,” LeBeau said.
Although Carlsen and Ng believe this is just a first step in tackling some of the systemic issues in our political system, they are excited about the opportunities the program offers.
“The reason why we are involved and why we chose to do this work is because we do see this as a system change approach that is absolutely a necessary approach in order to allow marginalized folks and LGBTQ people to have more power,” Carlsen said. “Especially in the political climate under (President Donald) Trump, people have been feeling fatigued and disenfranchised. We need to make connections between the system, the constituents, and the issues that matter most to the LGBTQ community.”
The vouchers won’t just help voters get more involved in the campaigning process — they also provide a path for more candidates to run in elections as well.
Members of diverse populations are vastly underrepresented as elected representatives. Supporters hope the program allows candidates from diverse backgrounds to have easier access to the political arena and be able to raise money from their own communities.
Carlsen, Ng and LeBeau echoed the idea that democracy vouchers are best used as a tool to help elect leaders who best reflect the community, giving immigrants, people of color, low income folks, and LGBTQ individuals a voice in the political process.
“The program also offers an alternate funding source to those candidates who had no access to traditional forms of funding,” LeBeau said.
Going beyond the benefits of receiving new types of campaign funds, there are symbolic benefits to participating in the voucher program as a candidate.
“By participating in the program as a candidate, it shows that you are truly committed to campaign finance reform,” LeBeau said. “It starts the conversation.
Update: This story was updated to include the number of Democracy Vouchers collected as of June 29.