The Washington state Supreme Court has upheld Seattle's pioneering Democracy Voucher program, allowing the public election financing program to continue operating as it dishes out over $1.2 million in funding to City Council elections so far this year.
The court ruled in a unanimous opinion published Thursday that the program did not violate the Constitution.
"The Democracy Voucher Program docs not alter, abridge, restrict, censor, or burden speech. Nor does it force association between taxpayers and any message conveyed by the program. Thus, the program does not violate First Amendment rights," Justice Steven Gonzalez wrote in the court's ruling.
The program was created by ballot initiative in 2015 and gives every voter in Seattle four $25 campaign contribution vouchers that they can give to any candidate who qualifies for the program. Participating candidates qualify by receiving a certain amount of $10 donations and signatures from Seattle residents (400 for city attorney races, 400 for at-large City Council seats, and 150 for district council seats) and then agreeing to limit their cash contributions to no more than $250 each. The program is funded by a local property tax that raises $3 million annually.
Two Seattle residents sued the city over the program, claiming that it was violating their First Amendment rights by forcing them to fund candidates they do not support. A lower court dismissed the case in November of 2017, but the residents appealed and, in 2018, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling on Thursday.
The plaintiffs argued that the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Janus Decision, which struck down public sector unions' right to collect fees from non-union members, supported their claim that the city was effectively forcing them to fund political messages they did not support. But in Thursday's ruling, the court said the Janus case did not apply to this case.
"Unlike the employees in Janus, Bister and Pynchon cannot show the tax individually associated them with any message conveyed by the Democracy Voucher Program. Without such a showing, Janus has no bearing on this case..." the court wrote Thursday.
The plaintiffs argued that the program was essentially subverting the views of political minorities by allowing residents to individually select candidates, but the court said the program is sufficiently neutral.
"The program resembles other content-neutral ways the government facilitates political speech, for example, when the government distributes voters' pamphlets," Thursday's ruling said.
Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for the City Attorney's office, told the Seattle Times the ruling was a "big win" and signaled to other Washington municipalities that they can create their own programs.
"If other Washington cities were considering a Democracy Voucher program of their own, they’ll be aided knowing our state’s highest court has just given the green light," Nolte told the Times.
Seattle's program has attracted nationwide attention, with other cities toying with the idea of starting their own programs and at least one presidential candidate proposing a federal version of the program for congressional and presidential elections.