Seattle’s campaign-financing experiment will be extraordinarily expensive and poses potentially troubling scenarios about bundling.
IN early January, Seattle will start its first-in-the-nation “democracy vouchers” campaign-financing experiment, sending out about $50 million worth of vouchers to city voters.
The idea behind the vouchers might sound good: Give voters $100 worth of campaign contribution scrip each (four $25 vouchers), and they’ll engage in elections in an entirely new way.
But the wrongheaded experiment, approved by voters in the August 2015 election, is extraordinarily complicated and raises a troubling potential for mischief, which is why The Seattle Times editorial board recommended voting no.
The first thing that voters need to know about the vouchers is that they should hang onto them. Everyone is sick of elections right now, and the 2017 city elections seems like a lifetime from now. But that’s when Seattle voters will decide races for mayor, two at-large City Council seats and city attorney.
Bundled together, a third party could deliver, say, $10,000 in contributions and get unusual leverage over a cash-strapped candidate.”
Candidates are just beginning to pop up in the council races. To be eligible to receive vouchers, council candidates have agreed to spending limits and to get 400 donations of $10 each. It will probably be a while before voters can even spend those $25 vouchers.
Startup and administrative costs could consume up to $1.5 million of the $6 million to be generated by a small Seattle property tax, according to city elections director Wayne Barnett. The signature on each voucher mailed in must be checked against King County’s election records, and the whole setup required new software and offices. It’s an extraordinarily expensive experiment.
One of the potentially troubling questions about the vouchers concerns bundling. State law bans “bundling” — a single person or group acting as an intermediary to gobble up campaign contributions and give them to a candidate. Bundling is a back door around campaign-contribution limits, and could quickly lead to corruption.
But whether, and how, that state law applies to Seattle’s experiment is an open question. Barnett has asked the state Public Disclosure Commission for advice, but the answer is not likely to arrive until the end of January.
The PDC should set clear, bright lines against bundling. The vouchers will seem like free money to voters, so imagine how tempting it may be if a third party — an employer, a union, a social club — offers to send them in for you. Bundled together, a third party could deliver, say, $10,000 in contributions and get unusual leverage over a cash-strapped candidate.
Washington state voters in November rejected launching a similar program statewide, for good reason. The Seattle experiment should be carefully watched to see if this superficially appealing idea simply creates new campaign-finance loopholes.