Seattle voters have received their second cycle of Democracy Vouchers, with participation expected to surpass the program’s 2017 launch.
The Democracy Voucher program was one of several campaign finance reforms voters approved in 2015, supporting Honest Elections Seattle Initiative 122 by 63 percent.
Each Seattle voter is provided with four $25 vouchers they can use to make campaign contributions to qualifying candidates for city government. The program launched in 2017.
The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission began issuing 2019 vouchers on Feb. 12.
“I think one of the things we learned is that people were not too happy with them coming out as early as they were,” said SEEC executive director Wayne Barnett.
This year’s vouchers were issued six months later than they were in 2017.
“Those four vouchers are the ones you can use for both elections in 2019,” Barnett said.
Voters can spread their contributions out, or give them all to one qualifying candidate. The vouchers provided this month are for both the primary and general election.
Candidates for city council and city attorney are currently eligible to participate in the program. There are seven council seats on this year’s ballot, and the mayor’s race will be added to the voucher program in 2021.
In order to qualify for the Democracy Voucher program, a candidate must collect 150 signatures and qualifying contributions of $10 or more.
“Once you’re in the program, you’re in the program,” Barnett said. “You don’t have to requalify for the general.”
Participating candidates are limited to accepting campaign contributions up to $250, but Barnett said that does not include the voucher. If a voter wanted to contribute $250 and all four of their vouchers to a candidate, that would be a total contribution of $350.
The program is funded by a $3 million property tax levy, which costs an average homeowner around $9 annually, Barnett said. This year’s program is providing $4.2 million in vouchers.
“It was a 10-year levy put into place, so it is set to collect $3 million a year for another seven years,” Barnett said. “If enough people persuaded the city council to rethink it, that could always happen.”
City council candidates using the Democracy Voucher program are limited to collecting $75,000 for the primary and $150,000 for the general election; anything above $75,000 collected in the primary can be rolled over to the general election.
Voters can make contributions by signing their vouchers over to a candidate or representative, which are then redeemed by a campaign through the SEEC. Barnett said about 2,200 vouchers had been returned as of Feb. 21. About 80 percent are mailed to the SEEC using a return envelope provided with the vouchers.
Each voucher has an identifying number, which can be used to make contributions online starting Thursday, Feb. 28.
“Whether or not people will switch to online is an open question,” Barnett said.
One concern raised when the voucher program was being debated was the potential for bundling, where a third party collects multiple vouchers for a candidate that could be used to curry political favor. Bundling is illegal under state law.
“Luckily, we did not see any that I was aware of in 2017,” Barnett said.
If anyone is concerned about a bundling scam, they can file a complaint with Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission.
The SEEC checks with the King County Elections office every six weeks for an updated list of registered voters.
“People who register to vote will receive their vouchers,” Barnett said.
Even if not qualified to vote, legal permanent residents and U.S. nationals are still eligible to participate in the Democracy Voucher program, Barnett said, and should inquire about obtaining their vouchers with the SEEC.