Changes coming to Democracy Vouchers program and other local election rules

This morning, the Council’s Governance, Ethics and Technology Committee moved forward an ordinance adopting several updates to the Democracy Vouchers program and to other rules governing local elections.

Many of the changes are tweaks; some are more substantive to fix issues with the Democracy Vouchers program that were discovered in its inaugural run last year.

Here’s a quick run-down on what the proposed ordinance does, as proposed by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC):

  • It increases the dollar threshold above which a candidate must disclose (in their F-1 financial disclosure form)  bank accounts, debts, investments, property, and compensation received. For bank accounts, it changes from $5000 to $24,000; for debts, from $500 to $2400; for compensation, from $500 to $2400; for other income, from $2500 to $12,000; for property entirely owned, from $2500 to $12,000; and for property with shared interest by another entity, from $5000 to $24,000.
  • It requires that vouchers be mailed to all active registered voters, instead of all registered voters. According to the city, last year the city spent $34,000 mailing vouchers to inactive voters, and only 29 returned them.
  • It eliminates the requirement that the person who the vouchers were issued to must be the person who writes in the name of the candidate to whom they are being directed. Enforcing that rule requires handwriting analysis, which is impractical.
  • It changes the schedule for distribution of Democracy Vouchers from January of a local election year to March. There was strong feedback that January was simply too early; most candidates had not yet filed, and many voters lost or discarded their vouchers.
  • It changes the rules for who may obtain Democracy Vouchers. Under the old rules, any adult person who either is eligible to vote, or eligible to donate to a political campaign and who has resided in Seattle for at least 30 days may participate. Under the updated rule, it’s simplified down to anyone eligible to donate to a political campaign and who has lived in Seattle for at least 30 days immediately prior to applying to participate.
  • It massages the rules around the requirement to participate in at least three public debates for each of the primary election and the general election. This was a problem in the primary election last year, particularly in the races that attracted many candidates. While the current law specifies “debates,” the race that had 21 candidates couldn’t possibly have had a debate that featured any kind of back-and-forth discussion between all the candidates; indeed, it was nearly impossible to hold a useful public forum for all the candidates in any format. Some of the events didn’t invite all of the candidates; most defaulted to a Q&A “forum” instead of a true debate. But that left a legal question as to whether the candidates participating in the Democracy Vouchers program had met the requirement. The updated rule allows the SEEC to define “debate,” and expands the allowable events to “similar public events.” It also allows the SEEC to waive or reduce the requirement “for good cause.”
  • It also allows for assessing a monetary penalty against a candidate who fails to meet the requirement to participate in public debates/events. Previously, the only option was to disqualify the candidate from the program.
  • It specifies the conditions under which a candidate loses qualification for the program: publicly withdrawing or otherwise abandoning the race, failing to advance to the general election, or if the SEEC finds sufficient violation of election laws or program requirements.
  • It allows candidates to collect vouchers during the primary election and allocate them toward the general election, in which case they don’t count against the candidate’s primary election maximum. Of course, if the candidate doesn’t advance to the general election, she or he can’t redeem those vouchers.
  • It clarifies the conditions under which a candidate may petition to have the fundraising limit lifted if an opposing candidate’s fundraising exceeds a certain threshold. This also happened last year.

This morning, the Council members adopted several additional amendments, including:

  • requiring that inactive voters be notified of their eligibility to participate in the Democracy Vouchers program;
  • clarifying the date by which candidates who don’t advance past the primary are required to redeem any democracy vouchers they collected;
  • increasing the dollar limits for City Attorney candidates participating in the Democracy vouchers program to match those for city-wide City Council position candidates (as opposed to district-based Council positions, which have lower limits);
  • clarifying that the prohibition on candidates receiving contributions from city contractors only applies to contracts to provide the city goods and services. Last year there was a question as to whether a contract for energy efficiency rebates was disqualifying;
  • giving the SEEC more flexibility to change the number and denominations of the vouchers while keeping to a $100 total. council member Mosqueda, based on feedback from community members, originally proposed a change from four $25 vouchers to five $20 vouchers — the idea being that next year when there are seven Council seats up for election, participants may want to spread their $100 across more than four candidates. SEEC Executive Director Wayne Barnett pointed out, however, that last year 77% of people gave all of their vouchers to a single candidate. As a compromise, Mosqueda removed the specific proposal of five $20 vouchers, but also struck the current language which specifies four $25 vouchers, giving the SEEC full authority to set the number and size as long as it still totals $100.
  • Tweaking the rules on the signatures and contributions required for a candidate to qualify to participate in the Democracy Voucher program. The current rules specify that a candidate must collect at least 400 signatures and contributions of at least $10 from 400 or more individuals in order to qualify, but it also gives the strong impression that the signatures and contributions must come from the same people. The updated rule clarifies that they are independent; that allows signature-gathering from people who may not have $10 in cash on their person, and online contributions from people without providing a signature. The point of these two requirements was to ensure that only viable campaigns participate in the program, and clearly disentangling the signatures and contributions leaves that goal intact.
  • Allowing people to return democracy vouchers by dropping them in King County ballot drop boxes (of which there are now 30 across the city). A representative of King County Elections was present at the meeting this morning and verified that they would be happy to pass on vouchers to the SEEC for redemption; she said that under state law, they already are required to faithfully handle everything dropped into the boxes — including mail. This also allows people to turn in their ballots and vouchers at the same time if they choose; on the other hand, given that King County has approved stamp-free mail-in ballots, use of the ballot drop boxes is expected to decline.

One issue that didn’t get addressed in the update is “bundling,” the practice of gathering contributions from a large number of people and donating it all at once to a campaign. Bundling exaggerates the importance of the bundler to the campaign and can be used to exert influence. Under state law, individuals are allowed to bundle but not third-party organizations — and not individual paid or volunteer representatives of third-party organizations, only those acting in their own capacity. But the Democracy Voucher ordinance allows for a designated representative of a campaign to accept financial contributions on behalf of the candidate.  The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission has issued a ruling that the state anti-bundling law applies to democracy vouchers — so a designated campaign representative can collect vouchers on behalf of a candidate, but employees and volunteers of a third-party organization canvassing in support of a candidate cannot. Council member Mosqueda expressed her dislike of that restriction this morning, wishing that “trusted messengers” could be allowed. She wondered if there was an exception to be made for publicly-funded campaigns such as those participating in the Democracy Voucher program. Barnett wouldn’t go there, noting that there’s nothing the city can do to make bundling lawful without violating state law.

The bill passed out of committee unanimously, and will come before the full Council next Monday for final approval.