In a loss for our libertarian neighbors, a King County Superior Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging Seattle's new public campaign finance system.
King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus wrote in a ruling issued late Thursday afternoon that Seattle's democracy voucher program does not violate Seattle residents' First Amendment.
The Pacific Legal Foundation sued the city over the democracy voucher program this summer. PLF represented two property owners who said their property taxes were funding candidates they may not agree with and therefore violating their Constitutional rights. PLF is a libertarian firm with an office in Bellevue and a focus on landlords and property rights. (The group is also suing Seattle over its new "first in time" rental rule, which requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant in an effort to avoid unconscious bias.)
The democracy voucher program, the first of its kind in the country, uses a small property tax levy to give Seattle residents $100 in vouchers they can donate to qualifying candidates for city office. (Voters approved the levy and creation of the program in 2015.) In its complaint, PLF called "democracy voucher" a "euphemism for a law that operates in effect as a politician enrichment tax." In a statement at the time, PLF attorney Ethan Blevins specifically named city council candidate Jon Grant, who advocates for tenants' rights. "So rental property owners are forced to bankroll a politician who is adverse to their rights and their interests," Blevins said. Other lawyers argued First Amendment challenges against public campaign financing have not succeeded in the past because, among other things, the government engages in speech we may not agree with all the time.
In her ruling, Andrus wrote that the program is "viewpoint neutral" since candidates, regardless of their politics, can qualify by collecting a certain number of small donations, agreeing to spending limits, and participating in public forums. She also wrote that that the city has a "reasonable justification" for the program because it hopes to increase participation in local elections.
While Andrus found the program is viewpoint neutral and therefore doesn't violate First Amendment rights, she agreed with PLF that it does "implicate" First Amendment rights. Blevins called that a "mixed outcome."
"We will definitely appeal," he said.
While the democracy voucher program has faced criticism from some candidates and one allegation that a candidate defrauded the system, it has also increased participation among low-income people who likely wouldn't be donating to candidates otherwise.
UPDATE: In a statement, the coalition that advocated for the democracy voucher program, Honest Elections, called the case "a meritless attack aimed at undermining the will of the voters of Seattle."
"As a coalition, we thank the King County Superior Court for standing up for a democracy of, by, and for the people, not big moneyed interests," the group said.