Seattle’s new “democracy vouchers” will be mailed out soon. Each voter will get four $25 taxpayer-funded vouchers to distribute to candidates in 2017.

Share story

Seattle voters will receive “democracy vouchers” for the first time next week.

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission plans to mail the taxpayer-funded campaign-contribution vouchers on Tuesday to every registered voter in the city.

Each voter will get four $25 vouchers to distribute among candidates in 2017. The City Council’s two citywide seats and the City Attorney’s Office are up for election.

The vouchers will be part of mayoral races starting in 2021 but won’t be allocated to candidates as Ed Murray seeks re-election next year. Mayoral races are the city’s most expensive and the wait will allow the voucher program more time to accumulate funds.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Seattle voters ensured the city would be the first in the country with democracy vouchers when they approved Initiative 122 in 2015. The “Honest Elections” measure authorized a 10-year, $30 million property-tax levy to pay for the program.

People not registered to vote can obtain vouchers as long as they live in Seattle, are at least 18 years old and are a U.S. citizen, U.S. national or green-card holder. The voucher-program application for nonvoters is available in 15 languages.

People participating in the program will sign the vouchers, assign them to candidates and mail them back to the elections commission. When given vouchers, candidates will relay them to the commission.

The commission, which is mailing out postage-paid return envelopes along with the vouchers, will verify them before releasing the money they represent to the candidates. Each voucher will have a unique identification number and bar code.

Only candidates who apply to and qualify for the program will be allowed to receive money from vouchers. To qualify, they’ll need to drum up a baseline number of campaign contributions, agree to take part in multiple public debates, adhere to lower campaign contribution limits and agree to special campaign spending caps.

People with vouchers will be able to look up which candidates have become eligible to collect vouchers by visiting the city’s website. Thus far, City Council candidate Jon Grant and incumbent City Attorney Pete Holmes are eligible.

The commission will publish a list of the candidates who have received money from vouchers along with names of the people who assigned the vouchers. In other words: If you assign a voucher, your support for a candidate will become public information.

The levy paying for the program will raise $3 million per year — not nearly enough to pay for every voter’s four vouchers. That sum would be about $50 million.

But the campaign spending caps ($300,000 for citywide City Council candidates, for example) should work to limit the number of vouchers that will need to be paid out.

Wayne Barnett, executive director of the elections commission, said one aim of the program is to get more people involved in the electoral process. People who contribute to campaigns are later on more likely to volunteer and more likely to vote, Barnett said.

“We know that only 1 to 2 percent of people in Seattle ever make a contribution to a candidate for city office,” he said. “So ideally this will get more people engaged.”

Another aim of the vouchers is to level the playing field for grass-roots candidates “who otherwise would in no way be able to raise $150,000,” Barnett said.

Opponents of I-122 said the voucher program would be complicated to supervise. They said the city would spend $28 of every $100 on administrative costs.

The commission has the program under control, Barnett said. To run it, he hired René LeBeau, who previously helped King County Elections move to voting by mail.

I-122 opponents also warned about shenanigans and predicted the program would mostly benefit membership groups able to drive many vouchers to certain candidates.

Barnett has asked the state Public Disclosure Commission for advice on the program and Washington’s ban on bundling but has not yet heard back, he said.

Bundling is when an individual or intermediary group collects many contributions on behalf of a candidate.

I-122 proponents said the bundling rules that apply to regular contributions would similarly apply to vouchers.

Proponent Aaron Ostrom, executive director of the progressive activist organization Fuse Washington, hailed the program’s launch.

“This is an exciting chance to strengthen democracy and level the playing field in Seattle,“ Ostrom said.

”Candidates can compete based on their values and leadership abilities rather than their connections to wealthy friends and corporate donors.”

For more information on democracy vouchers, check www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher, call 206 727-8855 or email democracyvoucher@seattle.gov.