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Democracy Vouchers Are Coming To Seattle

Registered voters in Seattle have begun receiving notices about 'democracy vouchers,' the result of an initiativepassed last yearto change the way local campaigns are financed.

Seattle voters approved a property tax that is expected to raise $3 million each year for 10 years to pay for each registered voter and other eligible adults to receive four $25 vouchers. 

The vouchers can be given as donations to candidates for local office. They can be used for the at-large City Council position races and the city attorney's race in 2017.  Registered voters will begin receiving the vouchers on Jan. 3.

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission oversees the voucher program. Executive Director Wayne Barnett said in addition to encouraging candidates to engage more with voters, the hope is that the vouchers will lower the barrier to entry for local races.

"I think the key thing is that this will allow a candidate who does not have a lot of deep-pocketed friends or associates to participate, and to get on the ballot, and to collect vouchers, and to run a campaign," Barnett said.

When candidates announce their intention to run for office, they can also opt into the public financing program in exchange for limits on campaign spending. Who people support with vouchers is public record, which is also true of regular campaign contributions.

The vouchers have names and voter registration numbers, so they can't be given away. If people don't use their vouchers, that money rolls over to the next election cycle, Barnett said.

The Democracy Voucher program is the first of its kind in the country. A similar statewide initiative, I-1464, failed this year. 

An early marker of success for Seattle's program will be how many candidates opt into it, according to I-1464  campaign manager Peter McCullom.

"How many people use their vouchers is the second big number, but in order for people to use their vouchers, there have to be candidates who have opted in," McCullom said.

He said people who are interested in campaign finance reform will be looking to Seattle's elections next year.

At least one person who may run for City Council has submitted papers to participate in the program.

Eligible adults who are not registered to vote can also apply to receive vouchers. More information can be found at the Democracy Voucher program website.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.