The controversial program, which uses taxpayer money to fund city elections, was implemented for the first time this year in Seattle. A new analysis shows that compared with typical voters a more diverse group of people used the vouchers in this year’s primary.

Share story

Nobody can accuse Seattle of shying away from controversy. From a $15 minimum wage to allowing Uber drivers to unionize, we’re not afraid to be the nation’s guinea pig when it comes to progressive legislation.

Seattle also earned first-in-the-nation bragging rights for “democracy vouchers” — a new program to finance political campaigns using taxpayer money.

The program went into effect this year, and it’s had a bit of a bumpy start. One City Council candidate has been accused of defrauding the program. A libertarian-leaning group has sued, saying the program violates the First Amendment. And a Seattle Times analysis showed that the vouchers haven’t gotten big money out of politics, as some proponents claimed they would.

But a new, early look at donor-participation statistics shows that the democracy voucher program does appear to live up to its name — that is, it is helping to democratize political giving in Seattle by diversifying the donor pool to better reflect Seattle residents.

The data analysis was performed by two liberal political-advocacy nonprofits: Seattle-based Win/Win and Washington, D.C.-based Every Voice. Both groups were major contributors to the Initiative 122 “Honest Elections Seattle” campaign that established the voucher program.

Voucher donations, just like all donations, are public record, so researchers know precisely who used the program. They worked up a demographic profile of the nearly 11,000 Seattleites who used vouchers through the Aug. 1 primaries. The vouchers could be used in three races — the City Council’s two citywide seats and for city attorney.

The vouchers are not yet accepted for the mayor’s race, and the researchers took advantage of the fact. They used that donation pool as a sort of control group, which could be compared with the people who used vouchers in other races this year.

The contrast is striking, particularly in terms of income and age.

In the mayor’s race, more than half of the donations came from households with incomes of at least $100,000. But among voters who used democracy vouchers, just 36 percent had household income at that level. And among poorer Seattle households — those with incomes below $50,000 — donor participation was at 14 percent with democracy vouchers, compared with 9 percent without.

The voucher program also appears to have dramatically increased political giving by younger people. In the mayor’s race, 57 percent of donations came from people 50 or older, compared with 42 percent among voucher donors. The voucher program had double the percentage of giving coming from people under 25 when compared with the mayor’s race.

In terms of race and ethnicity, the democracy vouchers also seem to have diversified the pool of donors. People of color made up 14 percent of donors using vouchers, compared with 11 percent in the mayor’s race.

Gina Owens, who lives in the Central District, contributed to a political campaign for the first time in her life through the voucher program — and it felt great, she says.

“I’ve always been a voter,” Owens said, “but my income has never been the highest in Seattle, so I always had a problem using my finances for campaigns, when I have to take care of home.”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The born-and-raised Seattleite used two of her four vouchers during the primaries to support Jon Grant for City Council Position 8. Grant placed second behind Teresa Mosqueda, and advanced to the Nov. 7 general election.

“It feels like I’m more a part of the system,” Owens said, who still has her two other vouchers to use in the general election. “People like me can contribute in ways that we never have before. We can participate in ways that Big Money always has.”

Bill Baugh, data director for Win/Win, performed the analysis using data from Catalist, a private political data vendor that sells detailed voter information to Democratic candidates and progressive interest groups.

Catalist and similar companies — Republicans have their own firms — start with publicly available voter-registration lists. In Washington, this can be downloaded from the Secretary of State site.

“They use that as their baseline data, and they keep building and building any type of data they can on top of that,” Baugh said. “There’s lots of public data out there, like fishing licenses and that type of thing. A lot of magazines will sell your information — there’s all sorts of weird data out there.”

Catalist also designs algorithms to help research, model and predict things like race and income, which is what Baugh did with the Seattle voter data.

“It’s not perfect; it is a model,” he said. “They make some individual mistakes, but when you look at the bigger picture, it’s pretty accurate.”

The program, which was approved by voters in 2015 through Initiative 122, authorized a 10-year, $30 million property-tax levy to pay for the vouchers. Eligible Seattle residents receive four $25 vouchers in the mail, which they can donate to any candidate who agrees to participate in the program.

According to the city, the programs costs the average homeowner about $11.50 per year.