Seattle Initiative 122 would use public funds to supply every voter in the city with “democracy vouchers” to spend on candidate campaigns.

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Proponents of Seattle Initiative 122 say large companies and wealthy individuals are increasingly using their money to push regular people out of the political process.

They say Honest Elections Seattle would push back — by giving every registered voter in the city “democracy vouchers” to spend on candidate campaigns.

The Nov. 3 ballot measure would authorize a 10-year, $30 million property-tax levy to pay for the vouchers while tightening rules for campaign contributions and lobbying.

Seattle would be the first jurisdiction in the country to have such a voucher system.

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“We have so many problems where solutions are blocked by the influence of money in politics,” said Alan Durning, executive director of the Sightline Institute, a progressive nonprofit think tank, and an author of I-122. “We have an enormous opportunity to demonstrate that progress is possible.”

I-122 is endorsed by many other progressive nonprofits, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, the League of Women Voters and the Municipal League of King County. Its campaign has raised about $1.3 million.

Related: I-122: Big money helping wage anti-big-money campaign

The opposition campaign, “No Election Vouchers,” has raised about $44,000. Its spokespeople are political consultant Sandeep Kaushik and two former Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission chairs, tax attorneys Michele Radosevich and Robert Mahon.

They argue Seattle campaigns already are well-policed, call the voucher system untested and contend I-122 would create problems, not solve them.

“I think we have strong election laws, we have clean government and we have a great deal of transparency,” Mahon said. “Do I think there could be some improvements? Probably. But I think this is clearly going to make things worse rather than better.”

Additional tax

I-122 would create partial public financing for campaigns and would be funded by additional property taxes amounting to about $9 annually for a $450,000 property. It would allow the City Council to insteadfund the vouchers with the city’s general fund.

Each election cycle — every two years — the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission would mail four $25 vouchers to each voter. They would be used in Seattle campaigns only, for mayor, council and city attorney.

Voters would assign the vouchers to candidates of their choosing, sign them and mail them in or submit them online. In order to use the vouchers, a candidate would volunteer to follow a set of rules established by I-122.

Those rules would include taking part in at least three public debates and accepting lower campaign-contribution limits and spending limits. I-122 would lower the cap on contributions to all candidates, including those not using vouchers, from $700 to $500.

Seattle Initiative I-122 would send “democracy vouchers” to every voter to spend on city candidate campaigns.  (Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times) Source: Honest Elections Seattle
Seattle Initiative I-122 would send “democracy vouchers” to every voter to spend on city candidate campaigns. (Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times) Source: Honest Elections Seattle

It would prohibit all candidates from soliciting contributions from any person or company with at least $250,000 in city contracts or $5,000 in city lobbying expenses.

Since Jan. 2013, 22 companies with contracts of at least $250,000, totaling $84 million, spent more than $28,000 on Seattle elections, according to Sightline.

I-122 would bar elected officials and their top aides from lobbying the city for three years after leaving their positions, require paid petition-signature gatherers to identify themselves as such, and make candidates report more about their own finances.

It would also increase penalties for election-law violations, create new crimes for violating its provisions and authorize the SEEC to administer the voucher program.

Rich play big role

Proponents say Seattle needs public financing for campaigns because political participation in the city is dominated by a wealthy elite.

Half the money given to candidates for the 2013 elections came from just 1,683 donors, or 0.3 percent of Seattle adults, according to a Sightline analysis. The lion’s share of the contributions came from the city’s richest neighborhoods, Sightline found.

I-122 proponents say democracy vouchers would give every voter some influence. They say Seattle’s rate of giving would increase from 1.5 percent to between 4 and 14 percent. The highest rate in the nation is 5 percent Minnesota, which has a tax-rebate program for small donations, Durning says.

Increased participation in Seattle would mean more political voice for people of modest means, says Estevan Munoz-Howard, a leader of the I-122 campaign.

“I’m a younger person, a person of color, and I’ve lived in South Seattle,” he said. “This is an opportunity for people like me … to hold a little more power.”

Seattle previously had partial public financing of campaigns, but in 1992 a state initiative prohibited such programs. In 2008, the Legislature passed a law allowing cities to establish programs if approved by public vote and funded locally.

The 2013 campaign for a ballot measure that would match small donations to council candidates with taxpayer funds raised just more than $100,000.

Seattle voters narrowly rejected that “Fair Elections” measure. The council considered a similar program for the 2014 ballot but decided against it.

Seattle’s $700 candidate contribution cap is already fairly low relative to other cities, and prosecutions of politicians are rare relative to other cities, I-122 opponents note.

Though wealthy people and corporations dominate giving to candidates, Seattle officials have in recent years led the country in passing worker-friendly legislation, including a historic minimum-wage law setting the city on a path to $15 an hour.

“The claim is that our elections are corrupted by corporations,” Kaushik said. “But when you look at what we’ve done in the last five years, the idea that we’re having difficulty moving forward on a progressive agenda doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

I-122 proponents contend Seattle workers have achieved gains despite a rotten setup. Just this month, they point out, a council candidate accused a developer of using the threat of an independent-expenditure (IE) committee to strong-arm him. They note that some cities, like San Francisco, have lower contribution caps than Seattle.

Spending is up by IE committees, which operate without contribution caps. They’ve poured more than $650,000 into this year’s council races, compared with just more than $7,000 in 2013, zero in 2011 and about $135,000 in 2009. All nine council seats are up for grabs this year.

I-122 proponents say the measure would guard against IE committees because candidates in the voucher program could petition to surpass their spending limit if the sum of an opponent’s own spending and independent support surpassed the limit.

Opponents argue that I-122, by lowering the cap on contributions to candidate campaigns, would encourage wealthy donors to give more to IE committees. The measure wouldn’t directly restrict those committees at all.

Foes paint dark picture

The initiative’s foesdescribe a doomsday scenario were the measure to pass. They say organizations already dominant in politics would use membership rolls and IE committees to help secure reams of vouchers for certain candidates.

The program would benefit incumbents, they say, because incumbents would be better equipped to solicit vouchers and because the vouchers would be mailed to voters in January of each election year, with some challengers yet to declare.

The opponents say I-122 would spend $28 of every $100 in additional taxes on administrative costs and note the measure would raise enough money to cover only a small percentage of the vouchers available. They suggest the money could run out.

“Timing and funding are what’s wrong with this system,” Mahon said. “This will be easy to manipulate for candidates with good name recognition and organizations.”

Durning says managing the program would cost, at the most, about $21 per $100.

He says organizations directing vouchers to candidates would be restricted by the same contribution limits and bundling rules that govern regular contributions, and that the January mailing would give candidates time to build campaigns using vouchers.

The proponents say I-122 would help insurgents by making grass-roots campaigning for small donations more important and they insist the city wouldn’t run out of money.

With six primary candidates in each race and each candidate raising as much money as possible in vouchers, up to the program’s spending limit, the annual cost of the program would be about $2.5 million, they say. I-122 would raise $3 million annually.