The same law firm suing over Seattle's "first in time" rental law is now taking on the city's new public campaign financing program, the first voucher-based system in the country.
Today, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) announced a lawsuit alleging that Seattle's Democracy Voucher violates the First Amendment by using public dollars to subsidize political campaigns some taxpayers may not agree with. The program uses property tax revenue to gives Seattle residents $100 in vouchers they can donate to city council and city attorney candidates (the mayor's race will also qualify in the future). While other cities and states use other models of public campaign financing, like matching grant programs, Seattle was the first to pass a voucher system.
"'Democracy voucher' is mere euphemism for a law that operates in effect as a politician enrichment tax," the PLF writes in its legal complaint. Appropriate for a firm focused on landlords and property rights, PLF lawyer Ethan Blevins calls out tenant advocate Jon Grant, who has raised nearly $129,000 in vouchers in his race for city council.
"So rental property owners are forced to bankroll a politician who is adverse to their rights and their interests," PLF attorney Ethan Blevins said in a statement.
PLF is representing two Seattle property owners, Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon. Elster lives in a single-family home he owns in Seattle. Pynchon owns a single-family home in Seattle but rents it out and lives outside the city.
"This program is so patently and obviously unfair,” Elster said in a statement. "The democracy voucher program puts other people’s political beliefs into my mouth."
Sightline, a local think tank that advocated for Democracy Vouchers, argued at the time that the program is legal despite federal court decisions defining money as speech. Sightline director Alan Durning says the initiative that created Democracy Vouchers was "carefully vetted by a dozen lawyers," including Constitutional law experts, and he stands by that analysis today.
“I would be astonished if there is any legal merit whatsoever in their free speech argument,” Durning says. “There are at least a dozen cities and states around the country that use public funds to support campaigns and Seattle’s program doesn’t do anything that they don’t do. In fact, we give a lot more control to individual voters [by using vouchers instead of a more common block grant system]."
UPDATE: University of Washington Constitutional law professor Hugh Spitzer sounded like he could barely contain his laughter as we talked about the PLF’s legal challenge to Democracy Vouchers this afternoon.
The lawsuit claims that Pynchon shouldn't pay towards a public campaign financing system in Seattle because she doesn't live here.
That argument “doesn’t make any sense at all,” Spitzer told me. “They’re saying they don’t want to pay taxes, they don’t want to support public programs if they don’t live in the community. That’s not how property taxes work… That’s a silly argument.”
More broadly, both Spitzer and Brent Ferguson, a lawyer at the Brennan Center (which advocates for public campaign financing), say they don’t expect PLF’s challenge to succeed. Public campaign financing schemes have been challenged before, they said. And, while some other models have been struck down or limited, courts have rejected the argument that public campaign financing compels people to support speech they don’t agree with, Spitzer and Ferguson said.
“The government engages in its own speech all time,” Ferguson said. “It pays for politicians, it pays for judges, it pays for advocacy.” And arguing you disagree with those forms of government speech is “never a successful argument” to get out of paying taxes, Ferguson said.
Blevins could not immediately be reached for comment.
In an interview, Blevins disagreed. He argued the voucher program is uniquely legally questionable because individual voters—instead of the government—distribute the money. "It's the government as the speaker versus the individual as the speaker," he said, arguing that hasn't been tested in court before. (The other lawyers I talked to said the vouchers were not enough to make this system significantly different to a court than other systems.)
Blevins also stood by his argument that it's unfair for his client to pay into a system she can't use. And his other client, "a believer in free markets and individual choice," won't likely be represented by anyone running for office in Seattle, he said. "People who take minority or dissenting viewpoints are undermined" in this system, Blevins said.