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Seattle’s “Democracy Vouchers” Launch New Experiment In Campaign Finance Reform

Demonstrators gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, as the court heard arguments on campaign finance.
Susan Walsh
Demonstrators gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, as the court heard arguments on campaign finance.

Seattle voters are the first in the country to approve a new form of public campaign financing.

Backers of Initiative 122 say it is a local solution to the national problem of big money in politics. The city’s taxpayers will fund so-called “democracy vouchers” that all registered voters can use to support Seattle candidates who agree to take part. 

The money for the vouchers will come from a property tax increase that will cost the owner of a $450,000 home $8 per year. The levy is expected to raise $3 million each year.

To be able to collect campaign money in the form of vouchers, candidates will have to commit to capping their campaign spending. For mayoral candidates the limit will be $800,000. For city council district seats, it will be $150,000. At-large city council races will be allowed to spend $300,000.

The initiative is the brainchild of Seattle’s Sightline Institute, a policy research think tank. Analysts there say there is no way to get all the big money out of politics after the Citizens United decision. Political action committees will still be able to spend as much as they want independently. But to counter that, every Seattle voter will get $100 worth of so-called “democracy vouchers” to spend on candidates in city elections.

Sightline’s Serena Larkin says this will redirect attention to a much broader base.

“It makes it a lot more worthwhile for candidates to spend their time talking with every registered voter in their district,” Larkin said. “Because each one of those voters will now represent a $100 donation.”  

Larkin says that would be a big change; Sightline's research has revealed that in the 2013 election cycle, for example, only 1.5 percent of voting adults in Seattle gave money to campaigns and the donors were overwhelmingly wealthy, white people. 

The program will be administered by Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission, which will start staffing up next year for a program launch in 2017. They expect to need three full-time positions as well as some temporary help during crunch times to process the vouchers.  

Sightline says they are excited to see how the new system will change Seattle’s political landscape – and hope it will set an example for other places to follow suit. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to