The United States Supreme Court has declined to hear a challenge to Seattle’s pioneering “democracy vouchers” campaign-finance program.
Two Seattle property owners represented by lawyers from the libertarian-leaning Pacific Legal Foundation asked the nation’s highest court to take the case last year, after the Washington State Supreme Court upheld the program.
Property owners Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon said the vouchers had violated their constitutional rights to free speech by forcing them — through their tax dollars — to support candidates they didn’t like.
“The decision of who receives vouchers is left to the individual municipal resident and is not dictated by the city,” state Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez wrote in a unanimous opinion. “That some candidates will receive more vouchers reflects the inherently majoritarian nature of democracy and elections, not the city’s intent to subvert minority views.”
The U.S. Supreme Court denied the Elster-Pynchon petition Monday without considering the merits of the case.
The constitutionality of the vouchers program “is now settled,” Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a news release. “The appellants have no second opportunity to petition the court to review their case.”
Under the program that was approved by Seattle voters in 2015 and first used in 2017, the city raises $3 million annually in property taxes. Each election cycle, voters each receive four $25 vouchers that they can assign to the campaigns of candidates who abide by special regulations.
Most of the 55 candidates who ran for City Council last year signed up to use vouchers, including six of seven candidates who won election in November. The exception was Kshama Sawant, who said the constraints built into the program would make it more difficult for her to compete with independent spending against her campaign by large corporations.
More than 38,000 Seattle residents assigned vouchers in 2019, expanding the number of people involved in financing candidate campaigns. Critics have suggested that the program, by lowering cash contribution limits and by limiting campaign spending, has contributed to a massive increase in independent spending on Seattle elections by interest groups.
“Democracy vouchers help give voice to those who might otherwise go unheard,” Holmes said. “I’m thankful this fight is over and proud of our resounding success in the courts.”
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