Political giving in Seattle is overwhelmingly dominated by white, wealthy owners of view homes, according to a new study by an organization that’s backing a campaign-finance reform initiative.
White, wealthy owners of view homes fund political candidates in Seattle.
That’s according to a new study by the Sightline Institute. The progressive nonprofit think tank mapped contributions to candidates for mayor, City Council and city attorney for the 2013 election.
The main take-away from the study isn’t surprising — most people would guess that campaign donors skew rich, and it’s no secret that many affluent Seattle enclaves boast expensive views.
But the extent to which a small number of contributors from certain neighborhoods are dominating the game is alarming, says Alan Durning, the institute’s executive director.
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“With research you often discover that your preconceptions are wrong. I was shocked by how much the stereotypes about money in politics are true here,” Durning said.
Roughly half the money given to candidates for the 2013 elections came from only 1,683 donors, or 0.3 percent of the city’s adults, the study found.
More than a quarter of the money came from 391 contributors who gave $1,000 or more, representing 0.07 percent of Seattle adults.
When the institute looked at per-capita giving from each of the city’s 479 census block-groups, it determined that neighborhoods holding just 4 percent of Seattle’s population gave about the same amount as other neighborhoods holding 64 percent.
The “big-money zones,” which gave about $16 per resident for 2013, and the “little-money zones,” which gave about 89 cents per resident, each donated about 20 percent of the total cash.
Neighborhoods closer to the middle of the giving spectrum, holding 32 percent of the population, donated the remaining 60 percent of the money, according to the study.
The institute used data from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, the state’s Public Disclosure Commission and the United States Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
The big-money zones, it turns out, overlap in many cases with Seattle’s wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods — and with neighborhoods where the city’s view homes are located.
The study’s maps tell the story: Whether they show political giving, income level, lack of racial diversity or view homes, they each highlight neighborhoods hugging Seattle’s shorelines, wrapping around Green Lake and running across the waist of the city from Magnolia through Queen Anne to Capitol Hill and Madison Park.
The study used records from the King County Department of Assessments to map properties with mountain and water views.
Durning says the point was to demonstrate why campaign-finance reform is needed. The institute is supporting Honest Elections Seattle, an initiative that the City Council on Monday voted onto the Nov. 3 general-election ballot.
Honest Elections Seattle would lower the limit on contributions to candidates from $700 to $500. It would ban contributions to candidates from entities with city contracts of $250,000 or more and from people spending at least $5,000 to lobby the city.
The measure would give every voter in the city four $25 “democracy vouchers” to spend on qualifying candidates’ campaigns. The vouchers would be funded by a 10-year, $3?million per year property-tax levy.
Seattle’s contribution limits already are relatively low. New York City, for example, has contribution caps of $4,950 for mayoral candidates and $2,750 for City Council candidates. So why does the Emerald City need campaign finance reform?
“Seattle isn’t corrupt like the U.S. Congress is corrupt,” Durning admitted. “There aren’t millions of dollars flowing from special interests into City Hall. But to run for office in Seattle, you need to raise money, and the easiest way to do that is to have a Rolodex of rich donors.”
He added: “You stay in touch with those people, you build those relationships. The result is that you become attuned to the concerns of that class of people. We can do better than that. Honest Elections Seattle can promote a stronger model of democracy.”
Proponents of public financing for local elections have introduced legislation in Seattle before. In 2013, voters rejected a measure that would have used a property-tax levy to give up to $210,000 in matching public funds to qualifying council candidates. The council last year voted against putting a similar measure on the 2014 ballot.
New York City furnishes its qualifying candidates with matching funds, and Durning says the system has made a difference there.
New York City’s municipal candidates received contributions from a wider array of neighborhoods in 2009 than their state lawmaker counterparts, who didn’t have access to matching funds, according to a 2012 report.
Durning says vouchers would work better than matching funds because people wouldn’t need to take money out of their wallets in order to take part in the political process. Seattle would be the first jurisdiction in the country to use them.
“These vouchers are more democratizing because voters can give to the candidates they like,” he said. “The idea of giving the same amount to everyone from the dishwasher to the bank CEO makes sense. Everyone gets to participate.”
The institute’s report says the vouchers “could be game-changers that rearrange the political-money map of the city” by making less-wealthy neighborhoods more valuable to candidates.
“Doorbelling, house parties, receptions, fundraisers of many types, community forums, debates, street markets and outdoor festivals … will become fundraising venues,” the report claims.
The Honest Elections Seattle campaign has raised more than $245,000, including $50,000 from Sean Eldridge, the husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes; about $44,000 from the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization Every Voice; and about $5,350 from the Sightline Institute.
An opposition campaign registered under the name No Election Vouchers described Honest Elections Seattle in a recent news release as “a well-intentioned but misguided scheme based on a bizarre and untested democracy-vouchers model.”
Sandeep Kaushik, a consultant for No Election Vouchers, which hasn’t yet reported any contributions, says voters might trade or sell the vouchers, which would erode public trust in the political system.
But Heather Weiner, a consultant for Honest Elections Seattle, says the initiative would require voters to sign their vouchers just like they already sign their mail-in ballots. The initiative would make voucher fraud a gross misdemeanor, Weiner noted.
Kaushik says lowering Seattle’s contribution limits could result in more money being donated to independent-expenditure campaigns, which have no donation caps.
But Weiner says independent-expenditure campaigns won’t become more important under Honest Elections Seattle because they tend to receive very large donations, not amounts just above the cap for candidate campaigns.
Independent expenditures weren’t included in the institute’s analysis. About 3.5 percent of contributors for the 2013 candidates were corporations rather than people, according to the study. In mapping the data, the institute excluded contributions from nonresidential zones.
How Seattle votes in November could have implications outside the city, according to Josh Silver, director of Represent.Us, a Massachusetts-based organization that advocates for campaign finance reform.
Represent.Us, which has contributed $20,000 to Honest Elections Seattle, is looking into the possibility of running a Washington state initiative for democracy vouchers, Silver said. It would be a separate proposal from Seattle’s, with different details.
“The time has come for this innovation, and Washington state has been on the forefront of many issues — most recently gay marriage and marijuana decriminalization,” he said.
“It makes sense that this would be attempted first in Seattle. Somebody has to go first with everything, including this voucher system.”