In other cities, the senior housing complex where Hoa Chau lives might not be a lucrative destination for political candidates seeking campaign donations. The building is occupied by many Vietnamese immigrants who speak little English and have little disposable income.
But Seattle has democracy vouchers, and Ami Nguyen is using them to bankroll her City Council bid. Nguyen spent hours at the building recently, chatting with residents and collecting dozens of the $25 vouchers.
She walked the halls with Chau, who had never been visited by a candidate, and hasn’t donated to a campaign before. “Because I’m old and I’m very poor,” the 77-year-old said bluntly, through an interpreter. “I don’t have any money.”
Across Seattle, the taxpayer-funded democracy vouchers mailed in February to registered voters and other eligible residents are changing how races are run: 42 of 55 candidates for the council’s seven district seats have signed up and together have collected nearly $1.6 million in vouchers.
The program, unlike any other in the country, is meant to involve more people in the electoral process, help grassroots candidates compete and encourage them to interact with regular voters rather than dialing for dollars from wealthy donors. Participating candidates must abide by special spending and contribution limits.
More than 30 candidates have already gathered at least $20,000 in vouchers, and they’re interacting with voters in various ways.
Many are collecting vouchers while knocking on doors. But some are also canvassing outside supermarkets, and some are asking for vouchers at house parties. Meanwhile, they’re educating residents about the program, which was approved by voters in 2015 and which launched in 2017.
Nguyen brought blank replacement vouchers with Vietnamese text to Chau’s building. The 33-year-old public defender is among six candidates running in District 3 — which includes Capitol Hill, the Central District and Montlake.
To date, she has gathered $71,450 in vouchers and redeemed $57,100. Without the program supported by a property-tax levy that raises $3 million annually, “I wouldn’t be running, to be honest,” said Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees.
Canvassing in the U District
The work day had just ended but the sun was still shining last month when Shaun Scott set up a table outside Trader Joe’s in the University District, turned on a Bluetooth speaker, selected A Tribe Called Quest as his soundtrack and began trying to buttonhole passersby.
“I never lead with the vouchers,” said Scott, a candidate in District 4, which includes Eastlake, Ravenna and northeast Seattle in addition to the U District. “I try to lead with policy stuff. I try to lead with the fact that we need more affordable housing … We haven’t seen enough public investment in housing.”
Kelabe Tewolde wasn’t thinking about the council elections on his way to meet a friend. But the 24-year-old academic counselor ran into Scott and liked what he heard. “He made a decent pitch on housing, which I think is our No. 1 issue,” Tewolde said. “People are getting displaced.”
Tewolde didn’t have his vouchers with him, but Scott had replacements on hand. A minute later, the Democratic Socialists of America candidate accepted three vouchers worth $75 in property taxes.
Lucas Rabins, also 24, assigned two vouchers, saying he hoped Scott would push Seattle to allow apartments on more blocks.
“It’s nice to have someone here with vouchers ready to go,” Rabins said. “My vouchers went unused last time (in 2017). It’s all about accessibility. It just took me two seconds to sign my name.”
Scott has collected $141,400 in vouchers (but redeemed only $56,525 due to the program’s spending limit). Participating candidates may redeem only $150,000 in vouchers this year.
Lesser-known candidates may eventually be swamped by deep-pocketed corporations and labor unions that use independent political-action committees to spend large sums. Voucher collections have slowed in recent weeks, but the vouchers have somewhat balanced the scales early on.
Scott said his campaign has been taking cues from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive star who last year who rose to prominence last year when she upset an incumbent in New York City.
Her campaign canvassed at sites with large numbers of pedestrians and chose periods during the day when voters had more time to spare, Scott said, jogging to catch up with a potential contributor outside Trader Joe’s.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” he quipped.
A dining-room caucus
Ron Posthuma and his pals describe their politics discussion group as an “investment club for democracy.” Once a month, they crowd around the dining-room table in his Phinney Ridge house and talk about making change.
They started meeting in 2017 because they were “disgruntled and upset” by President Donald Trump’s election, and they immediately gravitated toward Seattle’s democracy vouchers. “The name of the group is Persistent Proactive People for Progress … and there are about two dozen of us at this point,” said Posthuma, a retired King County Metro executive.
Rather than decide where to donate their vouchers individually, group members are researching the races, asking some candidates join them as guests and discussing whom they might support together. They even drew up a matrix with political ideology on the x axis and viability on the y axis.
“We represent many districts … so we’re looking at candidates we think will help the city as a whole,” said Donna Stringer, who lives in Columbia City.
“This particular council has made some major blunders … by not stopping and thinking,” added her husband, Andy Reynolds. “We want people are a little less impulsive and a little more thoughtful.”
District 3 candidate Logan Bowers estimates he received $1,000 in vouchers after meeting with the group. The marijuana-store owner, who used to work in software development, showed up on an electric unicycle, Posthuma said.
Bowers has nabbed $75,450 in vouchers and redeemed $45,800. The District 3 incumbent is socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
“I thought (Bowers) was quite analytical in his approach. When we raised an issue, he would think about it for a minute,” Posthuma said. “We’re interested in people to the left but probably not as far to the left as Councilmember Sawant.”
The group members are reliable voters and some have donated to political campaigns in the past. But the voucher program has served as an additional incentive to swap ideas with each other, said Stringer, who has yet to assign her vouchers.
“My democratic intelligence has increased considerably,” she said.
“We’re people who also give money, but having $100 in vouchers has made us more intentional,” Posthuma added. “Deciding how to use the vouchers has elevated our need to do research.”
“In their own way”
More than 16,600 people have already assigned vouchers this year — nearly as many as made contributions to council candidates in all of 2015, when nine seats were up for election. There are about 462,000 registered Seattle voters.
Nguyen didn’t initially intend to spend so much time at Chau’s building in South Seattle, outside District 3. Then she received a call from a resident who’d read about her campaign and the voucher program in a Vietnamese community newspaper. He invited her to visit.
“Surprisingly, he had a bunch of friends there,” the candidate recalled. “It was so cool to see this group of refugees was organizing in their own way.”
People who have escaped war or persecution in other countries sometimes avoid politics here. Some residents have asked Nguyen whether the government might count their vouchers as income and reduce their benefits.
“I was so thankful to see them overcoming so many barriers,” she said.
Nguyen is assisting Chau in updating her voter registration so her vouchers can be redeemed. The senior said she chose to support Nguyen because the candidate understands the Vietnamese community. During an interview, the older woman wore a jacket covered with fireworks and American flags.
“She can help the poor,” Chau said. “She can help us have a voice.”
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