Before this month, Seattle’s “democracy vouchers” were just an idea. Now candidates are knocking on doors to gather them up.

Share story

When a Seattle City Council candidate showed up at Carlos Garcia’s door on a Saturday last month and asked for his “democracy vouchers,” he was a little surprised.

Garcia recalled voting in 2015 for a ballot measure creating the vouchers, and a package from the city had just come in the mail. But he was fuzzy on the details.

“I don’t even really know how the program works,” said Garcia, 46, standing on the front porch of his Beacon Hill home with the council candidate, Jon Grant.

“You’re asking for my vouchers, and I’m like, ‘Do I have one? Do I have four? Do I tear it off like a coupon and hand it to you?’ Is that how it works?” Garcia said.

His confusion was understandable. Seattle is the first city in the country to finance campaigns with taxpayer-funded vouchers, and the program is launching this year.

Voters authorized the program when they passed Initiative 122, authorizing a 10-year, $30 million property-tax levy to pay for the vouchers.

Last month, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission mailed each of the city’s registered voters four $25 vouchers to distribute to candidates in 2017.

There are races this year for the council’s two citywide seats and for city attorney. There’s also a race for mayor, but the vouchers won’t be allowed in that contest this time around.

Voters can return their vouchers to the commission directly (by mail, email, fax or in person) or to candidates (by mail or in person) for relaying to the commission. Doing nothing with the vouchers is OK, too.

To become eligible to collect the vouchers, candidates must pledge to take part in debates, agree to lower campaign-contribution limits and agree to campaign-spending caps.

To qualify to actually receive the funds that the vouchers represent, candidates must gather a baseline number of small donations.

Incumbent City Attorney Pete Holmes last week became the first candidate to qualify.

The commission will be releasing the funds to qualified candidates at least twice a month.

Proponents say the program will get more people involved in local politics and help less-known candidates compete against candidates backed by wealthy donors.

That’s what Grant is counting on. The housing activist, who lost in 2015 when he challenged incumbent Councilmember Tim Burgess, is running again for Position 8.

Burgess isn’t seeking re-election this time around, but Grant considers himself an underdog still. He says he won’t take any campaign contributions from corporations.

“We’re funding our campaign on small donations and democracy vouchers,” the candidate told Garcia. “That’s why we’re going door to door to ask for your support.”

Grant is eligible to collect the vouchers but not yet qualified to receive the donations they represent.

Other Position 8 candidates collecting vouchers include Sheley Secrest, Teresa Mosqueda, Ryan Asbert, Mac McGregor and Roger Kluck.

Persuading voters to part with their vouchers so far ahead of time is challenging. The primary election isn’t until August and the general election isn’t until November.

Most voters are recovering from last year’s election rather than thinking about 2017. But Grant wants to snag as many vouchers as possible before too many are misplaced and tossed away.

The commission is working on a replacement-voucher form, but it isn’t ready yet.

“You’re asking people to make a decision to support someone way before they normally have to make that decision,” Grant said.

“But these vouchers aren’t votes. They’re a means to support grass-roots candidates. We need to get started early so we can build up the resources to go up against corporate-backed candidates.”

Garcia didn’t give Grant any vouchers, nor did his husband, James Harris.

The Pioneer Square business owner thanked the candidate for going door to door. But he expressed skepticism about the vouchers program, calling it “provincial.”

“I’m hoping it will work, get more people involved,” Harris said. “We’ll see how it plays out. But right now, it just seems hokey.”

Grant is seeing some success, however. In his first week, he collected about $8,000 in vouchers, he says.

Kashina Groves, 32, and her husband, Apu Mishra, 40, assigned all eight of their vouchers to Grant. They’d seen a reminder from him on Facebook.

“So I didn’t just dump them in the recycling,” Groves said.

One of Grant’s strategies is to ask for at least one voucher, if not all four. That’s what worked with Rupert Berk in the same neighborhood where Grant visited Garcia.

The candidate is targeting areas he won in 2015, such as Beacon Hill.

Berk, 47, reacted positively when Grant described his views on affordable housing but initially balked when the candidate asked for his vouchers.

“I’m probably going to do more research,” he said.

So Grant tried again: “I know you want to do your research, but we’re just trying to get off the ground. Would you support us with just one — just $25 at no cost to you?”

Berk thought for a few beats. Then he relented, shrugging his shoulders.

“Sure,” he replied.