In 2015, Seattle embarked on a bold new experiment.

What if instead of the richest donors having an outsized political influence, Seattle residents of all backgrounds and incomes had the same opportunity to donate to political campaigns?

That was the vision behind Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers, now in their third election cycle. This year, Democracy Vouchers are for the first time being used in the city’s mayoral race.

Seattle is the first city in the country to implement a voucher program. Through the program, residents are given four, $25 vouchers to allocate to the candidates of their choice. 

In the first election cycle to use vouchers in 2017, nearly 21,000 people donated through the voucher program, more than twice the number that made a cash contribution to a political candidate, according to a report by the University of Washington.

In the 2019 election cycle, participation dramatically increased, with more than 38,000 people using the program, including more than 80% first-time voucher users, a Georgetown University report showed.

Even with the advances, however, only fewer than 7% of eligible residents used vouchers in 2019.

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Some cities — such as San Jose — are looking to replicate Seattle’s program, with others turning to small donor matching programs to try to make political financing more equitable. 

Seattle’s Estevan Muñoz-Howard is one of the people who worked on the effort to establish the voucher program. He said the vouchers are about “setting a floor for political voice in the city and making sure that everyone could have at least $100 worth of say.” 

Estevan Muñoz-Howard is one of the people who worked on the effort to establish the voucher program.  (Courtesy of Estevan Muñoz-Howard)
Estevan Muñoz-Howard is one of the people who worked on the effort to establish the voucher program. (Courtesy of Estevan Muñoz-Howard)

Muñoz-Howard said the old way of funding elections put too much power in the hands of a wealthy few. He said before the vouchers, “with limited time and limited money, [political consultants] tend to focus on the … most likely voters, which tend to be older, whiter, male — folks who are already bought into the system whose voice is already being represented.” 

He said the voucher program was designed to interrupt that cycle, and put lower income people and communities of color on a more level playing field and get candidates and campaigns into communities that have historically been neglected.

The program is not a silver bullet, Muñoz-Howard emphasizes. Vouchers did not magically erase generations of civic neglect of marginalized communities. But he said they are slowly shifting the political culture in our city and potentially beyond to fulfill the promise of a more inclusive and representative democracy.

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But the progress will be slow. While the Georgetown report showed that voucher users were more representative of the electorate than cash donors who gave more than $25, the largest gains in voucher use came from white, older, higher-income residents who regularly voted.

The role of independent expenditures also complicates the picture. In the 2019 election, for example, unrestricted money spent on Seattle elections more than doubled, led by contributions by Amazon. Yet even with the colossal money dump, the candidates bankrolled by business largely lost.

Currently, all but one of the seven leading mayoral candidates are people of color, and two are Native American. More candidates could be announced in the coming days and weeks, but the diversity of the current pool is remarkable.

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In addition to the racial diversity of the mayoral candidate pool, the wealth and income diversity is significant as well. As The Seattle Times reported late last month, of the candidates who were in the race at the time of publication, net worth ranged from $0 to $15 million. Unlike in 2019 — when both final candidates were multimillionaires — this year, through the voucher program, a candidate with one of the highest fundraising totals is also the one with $0 personal net worth.

Lack of financial resources has long contributed to keeping candidates of color and women out of running for political office. And worse, once you don’t see others like you in office, it’s hard to imagine yourself there. As Muñoz-Howard noted, it often takes multiple asks to encourage people of color and especially women of color to run for office.

“Instead of viability being based on how many wealthy people you know, and whether or not you look like your predecessor,” Muñoz-Howard said, “we wanted to build a system where your viability is based on the strength of your ideas and your accountability to community.” 

Going forward, it will be critical for the program to gain traction in the communities most often left behind in the political process. Communities of color, immigrant and refugee communities and low-income people all need strategic, concerted, outreach and education to ensure they have knowledge of the program and understand why it’s beneficial to them and their communities.

The voucher program will not be successful if participation replicates the inequities of the previous system and is only utilized by people with racial and economic privilege. The results so far are promising. We need to allow time and dedicate resources to ensure the program reaches its full potential.