Democracy Voucher program ramping up

Last fall, the City of Seattle approved Initiative 122, the Honest Elections Initiative. Its signature feature is the Democracy voucher program, wherein residents of Seattle each get $100 of vouchers that they can contribute to the campaigns of people running for city elected office.

Last Wednesday, Wayne Barnett, the Executive Director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), briefed the Council’s Education, Ethics and Governance Committee on the roll-out of the program which has been given to the SEEC to administer.

Every Seattle resident who is allowed by law to contribute to a political campaign can receive four $25 Democracy Vouchers. They can then assign those vouchers to a candidate for city elected office (City Council, City Attorney, or Mayor) who has been certified by SEEC to receive the vouchers, and then the candidate can redeem the vouchers it receives for cash to be used as campaign funds (and with all the restrictions imposed upon campaign funds).

In order for candidates to be certified by SEEC, they must collect a certain number of signatures, as well as contributions of a minimum of $10 to demonstrate legitimacy as a candidate. They must agree to lower contribution limits from individuals ($250 for City Council and City Attorney candidates excluding vouchers, $500 for mayoral candidates) and a spending camp on their campaigns ($150,000 for district City Council positions, and $300,000 for city-wide positions). Finally, they must follow strict filing and reporting requirements, and they must file F-1 financial disclosure forms at the time they register for the Democracy Voucher program.

The system has been designed for extreme transparency: every voucher has a unique ID, similar to the serial number on paper currency, and the SEEC tracks which vouchers are issued to whom as well as which candidates redeem them. And just as the SEEC currently generates reports on campaign contributions, they will also generate reports on who gave their vouchers to each candidate. Essentially everything in this program is public information.

Next year the system will be open to candidates for City Attorney and the two contested City Council positions. Although there is also an election for Mayor next year, the Honest Elections initiative specifies that the Mayoral race does not become part of the program until 2021.

Education will be required in order for this to go smoothly, because there are some tricky nuances to the program. Vouchers are not transferable: you can’t give them to someone else, or to an advocacy organization, to fill in on your behalf like a blank check. Though there is no prohibition on holding a candidate forum where people are encouraged to bring their vouchers and fill them in there.

The SEEC has just begun its outreach program. Phase 1 involves launching a web site with program details in 14 languages, and engaging with stakeholders. They have also launched a Facebook page. As of last week, they have had 1100 visitors to the web site since it launched on August 16th, and 2200 individuals have seen the Facebook posts. They have an advisory committee. They are organizing a set of open focus group meetings, occurring in four different languages, to help them understand what information they will need to share with people in order for them to use the vouchers. Everyone is welcome to participate, but Council member Gonzalez worried that their approach to advertising the focus groups will skew participation toward registered voters and away from under-represented communities.

Phase 2 of the outreach plan begins in January with an informational mailer sent out to all households in Seattle (not just registered voters), educating eligible participants about the voucher program and how they can participate. The actual vouchers will be mailed out in May to all registered voters as well as anyone else who registered to be part of the program (and is eligible).

Again, Gonzalez reiterated her concerns that the outreach to underserved communities will need to be robust. She encouraged SEEC to use the Seattle Channel, as well as ethnic media including radio and newspapers. Gonzalez also wondered whether the levy proceeds used to fund the Democracy Voucher program could be used to pay other organizations to do outreach into communities. That raised a sticky issue: SEEC is the organization, independent of all three branches of government, that polices both campaigns and other organizations that do outreach related to elections. For it to be administering its own grants places it in the position of policing both itself and the organizations it funds.

The Democracy Voucher program is a new, pioneering program taking a step toward campaign finance reform. The rollout next year will be tricky, but it’s nice to know that there is a sincere, hardworking group trying to get it right.