Seattle’s democracy vouchers played an important role in the city’s Aug. 3 primary election, supplying candidates for mayor, City Council and city attorney with about $2 million in taxpayer-funded donations.
Six of the eight candidates who advanced from the primary to the Nov. 2 general election are using vouchers, though two have already reached limits set by the program and can redeem no additional vouchers. Four candidates are still able to redeem them at the moment.
This is the third election cycle for the program adopted by Seattle voters in 2015, which is unique across the country. Each eligible resident gets four $25 vouchers that can be submitted through the mail, online or in person to canvassers equipped with blank replacement voucher forms.
The city mailed the vouchers in February but residents can request replacements. If you submitted all your vouchers in the primary, you don’t get more for the general election.
There were more races in 2019, when all seven of the council’s district seats were contested, but voucher donations this year will be record-breaking.
In 2019, candidates redeemed $2.4 million in voucher donations. In 2021, candidates have already redeemed nearly $2.7 million in vouchers, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which administers the program for the city. This year is the first that vouchers are being used by mayoral candidates, who were held out of the program in 2017.
The program takes $3 million each year from property taxes and entered the 2021 election cycle with $6.8 million in the bank. To use vouchers, candidates must agree to limits on campaign contributions and spending.
More than 36,000 Seattle residents have donated vouchers this year, according to the commission, or about 7% of registered voters.
“The purposes of the program are to get more candidates and to get more contributors, and on each of those counts, we saw positive results [in the primary],” said the commission’s executive director Wayne Barnett.
Under the program, general-election mayoral candidates must stop redeeming vouchers when they’ve raised $400,000 total, including vouchers and cash. The same cap applied in the primary.
Mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell’s campaign maxed out last week, raising almost $360,000 from vouchers for the general election, the campaign said.
“For Bruce’s campaign, vouchers have been great,” said Christian Sinderman, a political consultant working with Harrell, a former council member who collected some vouchers during conversations with voters outside supermarkets. “They make retail politics much more important … They give everyone the opportunity to have a stake in the game.”
Harrell’s opponent, Council President M. Lorena González, expects to max out sometime in September, with most of the $400,000 total raised from vouchers, campaign manager Alex Koren said.
“We’ve got a very aggressive collection effort right now,” Koren said. “We’ve seen a big uptick in people who want to get out there and volunteer.”
In addition to volunteers, the effort includes paid canvassers. González’s campaign is working with a consultant whose canvassers collected vouchers for mayoral candidate Andrew Grant Houston in the primary.
Houston’s campaign at one point contended with allegations that a canvasser was misleading passersby by asking them to sign voucher forms to “help the homeless” and the González campaign is looking into a similar allegation, Koren said. The canvassers are trained to pitch on relevant issues from candidate platforms, then provide candidate information, said Riall Johnson of Prism West, a political consultancy.
In the race for Position 8 on the council, a citywide seat, incumbent Teresa Mosqueda is collecting vouchers, while challenger Kenneth Wilson is not participating in the program. In the race for Position 9, also a citywide seat, Nikkita Oliver has maxed out, reaching the general-election cap of $187,500 for citywide council candidates, while Sara Nelson is not using vouchers.
Oliver, an attorney, educator and artist who ran for mayor without vouchers in 2017, said the program allows candidates “without major connections to wealthy communities” to compete and has made a difference.
“It really does open up democracy … to many more people,” Oliver said.
In 2017, Oliver wasn’t able to pay campaign workers until June. This year, campaign workers were hired much earlier, and the Oliver campaign has been able to pay small business owners for space, arts and meals, rather than accept those as donations, the candidate said.
That spending means “public dollars are going back into the community,” Oliver added.
Nelson, a brewery owner, said she decided not to use vouchers because she was worried in January, when she launched her campaign, that COVID-19 restrictions would make qualifying for the program too challenging. To qualify, she would have had to collect signatures from 400 voters.
Council candidates using vouchers can accept up to $300 in cash per donor, which those not in the program can accept up to $550 in cash per donor.
Nelson said she supports the underlying idea of the program — to increase civic engagement and get big money out of politics. But she has questions about whether the program is accomplishing all of its aims, she said, mentioning the allegations about paid canvassers.
“I don’t know if it’s the kind of civic engagement that was intended,” she said.
While the program has limited candidate spending somewhat, spending by independent political-action committees has increased, Nelson also noted.
Both city attorney candidates, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy and Ann Davison, are collecting vouchers. Thomas-Kennedy should max out later this month, said Johnson, whose canvassers are working for her campaign.
“Honestly, without democracy vouchers, I don’t think I would have a campaign,” said Thomas Kennedy, a former public defender. “I don’t have any money … I know very few people with money.”
Voucher donations have allowed Thomas-Kennedy to hire campaign workers, buy merchandise and send mailers to voters about her ideas, she said.
Davison didn’t qualify for the program until after the primary, but is now reaping benefits, she said. “It really does help people feel involved,” she said.
Because the vouchers are funded through property taxes, “I intend to use them very miserly,” added Davison, an attorney.