City wins first round of court fight over democracy voucher program

Last Thursday, King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus ruled in favor of the City of Seattle in a lawsuit challenging the city’s “democracy voucher” program.

The program instituted a property tax and used to proceeds to fund “democracy vouchers” that Seattle residents could use to contribute to the campaign fund of any eligible candidate.

The lawsuit was filed by two people who own property in Seattle: one who resides in Seattle and objected to his property taxes being used to support candidates he didn’t agree with, and one who lives outside of Seattle and objected to her property taxes being used to support campaigns she herself couldn’t vote in. Their case centered on the notion that compelling taxpayers to fund political speech with which they disagree (i.e. candidates who receive democracy vouchers) is a violation of their rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution, because it interferes with their right to support candidates other than those selected by the voucher holder (or not to support a candidate at all).

However, the case law favors the city. The most pertinent case is Buckley vs. Valeo, which was a challenge to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund program (that checkbox on your form 1040 that allows you to divert $1 to public financing of presidential campaigns) on similar grounds: financially supporting candidates with which taxpayers may disagree. The Supreme Court ruled that the program is constitutional because it was intended “not to abridge, restrict, or censor speech, but rather to use public money to facilitate and enlarge public discussion and participation in the electoral process, goals vital to a self-governing people.” The Court went on to say that “the public financing of political candidates, in and of itself, does not violate the First Amendment, even though the funding may be used to further speech to which the contributor objects.”

In a separate case, the Supreme Court ruled that restrictions on free speech must be “reasonable and viewpoint neutral.” Buckley vs. Valeo met this criterion since any eligible candidate could receive funds regardless of their viewpoint.  Judge Andrus found that the Democracy Vouchers program also meets this requirement. Like the presidential campaign fund, the Democracy Vouchers are intended to broaden participation in political campaigns (which in the program’s first year it clearly did). And like school voucher programs which the Supreme Court found to be constitutional, the democracy voucher program is viewpoint neutral.

The challengers to the Democracy Vouchers program argue that this case is different because, unlike any preceding case, here Seattle residents are choosing who the funds go to instead of using a formulaic approach to distribute funds. This, they argue, subjects taxpayers to the “majoritarian view” of the populace for dispersal of the tax revenues. However,  as Andrus noted, while the city sets general eligibility criteria, eligibility for receiving funds is not set to a popular vote nor to majority rule; rather each individual resident can choose individually how to distribute their vouchers.

Based on this line of reasoning, Andrus found in favor of the city and granted its motion to dismiss the case. The plaintiffs will likely appeal the ruling, so the case is far from over, but it’s a nice early victory for the city.  The City Attorney’s Office issued a press release celebrating the win.