Seattle Election Oversight Officials Call Democracy Voucher Program A Success | KNKX

Seattle Election Oversight Officials Call Democracy Voucher Program A Success

Mar 21, 2018

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission says the city's democracy voucher program is working. That conclusion is based on a recent analysis from the agency that oversees city elections.

Last year was the first year residents could use the vouchers. Registered voters and other Seattle adults receive four $25 vouchers that they can give to eligible candidates in city races.

The vouchers are one part of an initiative voters passed in 2015 that aimed to reform campaign finance. The initiative also included a property tax to pay for the vouchers.

In 2017, the first year they could be used, only the at-large City Council position races and the city attorney's race were eligible. 

More than 2 million vouchers were initially mailed out, according to the report. About 72,000 of them were returned and not all of those were eventually redeemed by candidates.

That return rate may not seem especially high. But commission Executive Director Wayne Barnett  says there was still a dramatic increase in the number of people making campaign contributions compared to previous years.

"So I think if in 2019 we see a diverse slate of candidates and a healthy number of candidates participating, vying for office, I think that will be proof that the program is sustainable," Barnett said.

That increase in contributions was one stated goal of the program. Another is to encourage more diversity in politics by giving nontraditional or up-and-coming candidates a better chance at fundraising competitively with candidates who can tap large donor networks.

Some have criticized the requirement that candidates get 400 signatures and contributions before they can unlock democracy voucher funds, saying the threshold is too high.

"Ultimately one of the reasons for that qualifying barrier is to make sure that we are not giving public tax dollars away to folks who really don't stand a chance of getting elected," Barnett said.

Vouchers will be mailed out and used again for the City Council district seat elections in 2019. One change the commission is considering is mailing out the vouchers closer to the August primary in hopes fewer people might lose them.

The commission is awaiting an independent analysis before officially recommending any changes. That report is expected at the end of April. After that, it would be up to the City Council to finalize any changes the commission recommends.