Vouchers for Democracy

Seattle funds candidates who spend less


IN IT'S MUNICIPAL elections the City of Seattle mails out four $25 “democracy vouchers” to every Seattle resident age 18 years and older. The residents are free to donate these vouchers to candidates for city office who pledge to limit campaign spending and only accept small-dollar donations.

By making nearly every resident a potential donor, the voucher program aims to increase the number of candidates and issues on offer in city elections. That’s a big change from business as usual, when the most successful candidates are often those with direct lines to the city’s 1% elite—with wallets fat enough to write big cheques.

Voters could donate the money by writing the candidate’s name on one of the blue slips of paper, signing it like a cheque, and then mailing it back to the city—or handing it to a candidate in person.

'I felt like a big wig'

“I felt like a bigwig that usually donates all the time,” says Gina Owens, a 60-year-old Seattle resident who is raising her three grandchildren in public housing. She had never donated to a campaign before the democracy vouchers. “Being able to contribute to a campaign like that was really awesome ... like Bill Gates!

In 2017 the city saw greater age, gender and geographic diversity among voucher donors compared with cash donors. Voucher donors were also more likely than cash donors to live in lower-income neighborhoods and areas where people of color are the majority.

Six candidates in 2017 Seattle elections used the democracy vouchers. This includes Teresa Mosqueda, who raised $300,000 with vouchers and ultimately won a seat on the Seattle City Council.

Democracy vouchers were Mosqueda’s largest source of campaign funding, accounting for two-thirds of her $459,000 fundraising total. “If I was out door-belling in the evening for three hours or so, I could walk away with $500, $600, even $700 in vouchers on my own,” she says. “That was really incredible.”

Fresh faces, fresh ideas

The voucher candidate pool is diverse. For most of them the 2019 election was their first bid at public office. Voucher candidates included a physician working at a community health care center, a pharmacology Ph.D. student, a business owner operating several cannabis retail stores across the city, and a filmmaker.

The vouchers are making it possible for these fresh faces to run competitive, well-funded campaigns, even without connections to the well-established network of the city’s typical big money donors.

Democracy vouchers appear to have led to more small donations. In 2015, the last cycle before the program, an estimated 8,200 Seattle voters contributed to candidates. In 2017, that number tripled to 25,000.

Seattle voters approved a property tax of $3 million per year in 2015 to fund the Democracy Voucher Program for 10 years.

Seattle is the first city in the USA to try this type of public campaign financing.

In 2021, the mayor, city attorney, city council positions 8 and 9 will be on the ballot and eligible for funding. The Democracy Voucher Program has $6.8 million available for local candidates to fund their campaigns.

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