Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program: What to do with that money you’re going to get in the mail

How can we make housing more affordable? How can we make getting around the city easier and more efficient? How can we help the city grow in ways that don’t leave people behind?

We elect officials to make decisions about these things for us – things that affect how we live in our city. And that’s why 63 percent of Seattleites decided in 2015 that they wanted a way for more of their neighbors to donate to campaigns or run for elected positions themselves. So the city passed a bunch of new rules about how candidates can spend money to run for office. One of the biggest changes to come out of the new rules? Something called the Democracy Voucher Program.

What’s the Democracy Voucher Program?
It’s a program that’s out to encourage more Seattleites from across the city to donate to political campaigns, and the first of its kind in the country. As a Seattle resident, you get $100 (four $25 vouchers) from the city that you can give to any eligible candidate in this November’s city elections.

Why would I do that?
If you’re a voter, this is another way – in addition to voting – for you to have a say in who gets elected.

And if you’re thinking about running for office, this is one way the city is trying to lower your barrier of entry.

Does every single Seattleite get to use the vouchers?
If you are a Seattle resident, at least 18 years old, and you’re a U.S. citizen, U.S. national or green card holder, you’re eligible to use the vouchers.

Registered voters should be seeing them in their mailbox soon (they were mailed out yesterday). If you’re not a registered voter, but meet those requirements, you can apply here to get your vouchers. (For the application in 14 other languages, check out this page).

So who can I give money to?
For this year’s elections, voters can only give money to city council and the city attorney candidates. In 2021, the next mayoral election after this year, voters will also be able to give money to mayoral candidates. (Mayoral races have a higher spending limit, so the program wants a little time to build funds so it doesn’t go broke in its first year).

You can “spend” your vouchers however you’d like – all four can go to one candidate or you can use each one to support different candidates.

Cool, so I can give money to any candidate I want?
No. It’s important to know that candidates have to opt into the Democracy Voucher Program. As of now, there are two candidates who are eligible: Jon Grant (who is running for a city council seat) and Pete Holmes (who is running for re-election as city attorney). You can check this page to see which other candidates opt into the program.

Can candidates still take other donations from “big donors”? If so, how much of a difference will my $25 to $100 donation make?
There are two answers to this question. That’s because there’s a different set of rules for candidates who opt into the voucher program and for candidates who don’t.

For candidates who opt in, they can accept a maximum of $100 in vouchers from any one individual. In addition to that, they can accept $250 monetary contributions from any individual or corporation who wants to donate to them. (Previously the cap was $700). Also, their total spending (including monetary contributions and vouchers) is limited in the primary and general elections. If you’re running for mayor, the total spending limit is $800,000. If you’re running for city attorney, the total spending limit is $150,000. If you’re running for a City Council at-large seat, the total is $300,000 and a district seat is $150,000.

Candidates who don’t opt in to the program can accept a maximum of $500 per individual or corporation. But they don’t have any total spending cap, meaning, they can spend however much money they want.

Will your $25 to $100 smaller donation make a difference? The idea is that it could, if it comes with donations from lots of people around the city who previously wouldn’t have donated at all. So we’ll see.

OK, so why would a candidate opt out?
One reason a candidate might opt out is if they’re worried that someone else in the race will have way more money to spend than they will, says Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Democracy Voucher Program. Remember, if a candidate opts into the program, they have to limit their total spending. And if they know their opponent isn’t going to opt in and wants to spend way more money than them, that candidate may not want to take that chance.

When do I have to submit my vouchers by?
You have from today until November 30. So, quite a while. (Election day is on November 7, but you can submit your vouchers after that and they’ll still go toward a candidate’s campaign costs.) But, as the progressive organization Fuse Washington recommends, you probably want to wait until more candidates have joined the race so that you know the full menu of options.

Why is the city distributing these things so early?
The initiative mandated the vouchers be mailed out on January 3 this year, so that’s what the city did. The idea behind sending them out so early is that it gives candidates as much time as possible to build their campaigns throughout the year.

What if I lose mine… (or I already accidentally threw it out)?
Evergrey reader Sara Kiesler of Fuse Washington suggests sticking them to your fridge with a magnet. But if they end up lost, just call 206-727-8855 or email [email protected] to get more.

This is all very interesting. What if I’m thinking of using these vouchers to run for office?
So glad you asked! The Democracy Voucher Program has a great page of resources on that right here. Maybe share it with someone else you think should run, too?

This is all very progressive of us, but who’s paying for all this?
You are. Well, not just you, obviously. When Seattleites voted to approve the campaign finance measure in 2015, they voted to increase their property taxes, which amounts to a total of $3 million per year to fund the program for the next 10 years. As of now, this is all the money being used to fund the program.

Wait, there are more than 500,000 registered voters who will each get $100. That means we’d need at least $50 million. So will everyone get to use their voucher?
This is one aspect of the program that The Seattle Times editorial board criticized. Alan Durning, executive director of the Sightline Institute – a think tank that lobbied hard for the vouchers – defended the math in this post. In short, he says not everyone will use the vouchers. And even if they did, candidates in the program have a spending cap. In other words, “the sum of all the candidates’ spending limits is as much as the city will ever have to pay,” he wrote.

OK, so then what if everyone doesn’t “spend” their voucher dollars? Where does the leftover money go?
The money rolls over to the next election year’s funds and will be available if and when we have a year when the city is spending more than it’s taking in.

Interesting. Any other concerns people have about this grand experiment?
Some Seattleites don’t like that their tax dollars could be used to support candidates they wouldn’t vote for. Others, like The Seattle Times editorial board, think it’s too complicated and there aren’t strict enough rules to prevent fraud.

Will people know who I donated to and how much I gave them?
Yes. This will be public record, just like regular campaign contributions are.

So how are we going to know if this voucher program is working the way its creators want it to work?
This is the question, and one that Wayne struggles with a little bit. Since the Democracy Voucher Program is supposed to be a non-partisan and independent city commission, it can’t encourage specific people to participate or evaluate its success based on something like whether the quality of candidates improved.

But Wayne does point to two different outcomes his office is watching.

First, and most obvious, he’ll consider the program a success if a candidate enters the race who wouldn’t have had the resources to run for office without the vouchers.

And second, if campaign contributions come in from Seattle zip codes that haven’t contributed much in the past, that’s a win for the program. So basically, if you look at the map below, Wayne wants more orange dots evenly distributed throughout the entire city. (Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute wrote this study and created this map of who donated to the 2013 elections based on where they live in Seattle.)


So will this program really get big money out of politics?
If you read all the literature on the Democracy Voucher Program, you’ll notice it talks about “limiting” big money in politics, not getting rid of it entirely. As Wayne told us, “You can’t get big money out of politics. What this program is about is finding a way to give people a chance to get their message out. You can’t promise anybody that you’re gonna be even able to keep them on an even playing field with their opponents.”

I still have more questions about how all this works.
Awesome. We only scratched the surface here. Send your questions to us, and we’ll do our best to get them answered. Or if you want to dig in yourself, we’ve listed some resources below.

Here are some helpful articles and resources to learn more:

Thanks to readers Sarah Studer, Paul Gambill, Alexander Arkfeld, Ian King and Sara Kiesler for their comments and questions.

If you’re into the idea of these democracy vouchers, look out for them in the mail and put them in a safe spot for when you’re ready to use them. We’ll be keeping tabs on those two measures of success that Wayne talked about and will report back later this year.

By Anika Anand
Anika Anand is a cofounder of The Evergrey. She previously worked at The Seattle Times Education Lab and Chalkbeat.