Let's say you want to run for city council. You've got your eye on a well-funded incumbent like Council President Tim Burgess, but if you want to match him in fundraising—translation: signs, ads, direct mailers—you're going to need a least a couple hundred thousand dollars. What's the most efficient way to get that? Call up as many people as you can think of who'll be able to cut you a check for $700, the maximum allowed under city law.
If you win and make it to the dais, those donors, the people with $700 to spare, are likely to have your ear. The organizers behind Honest Elections Seattle call this the "donor class." And they want to loosen the grip they think that class holds on city hall.
Initiative 122—which the group has filed and will now have to gather at least 20,638 signatures for in order to get the measure on the fall ballot—would make some sweeping changes to the way Seattle city elections are funded. The most radical of those is the initiative's "Democracy Vouchers" system, an idea that's popular in campaign-reform circles but doesn't actually exist anywhere in the United States.
As proposed in this initiative, the system would work like this: Voters would be mailed coupons worth $100 every time there was a city election. (By 2019, this would also happen through an online system.) This way, everyone—barista or Starbucks CEO—starts with the same $100 to donate, creating a "donor class" of, well, just about every voter in the city.
Candidates could opt into the system, go around soliciting vouchers from voters, and then redeem them for cash to spend on their campaigns. Along the way, they could take limited cash and in-kind donations, too. Those who opt in would face some new rules, like lower caps on donations and new spending caps, ranging from $800,000 for mayoral candidates down to $150,000 for district council seats. In exchange, proponents of the plan say, candidates would get access to money from a whole bunch of people who wouldn't normally spend $100 on local elections, and they'd have to interact directly with those voters to get it.
"This allows for a much broader set of people to engage in funding elections," says Aaron Ostrom, executive director of Fuse Washington, one of the groups working on the initiative. "And it gives candidates a much different path for being able to run for office so they don't have to be wealthy or connected to wealthy people to be successful."
The money to fund the vouchers would come from a 10-year, $30 million property tax levy, which would amount to about $11 a year for a $450,000 house. (For perspective: The mayor's proposed $900 million transportation levy, which is also expected to be on the fall ballot, would be $275 a year for the same house.)
The benefit for an unknown candidate is obvious, but getting well-funded incumbents—like Burgess, who raised about $254,000 when he ran in 2011—to participate counts on being able to shame them into "opting in" to the new system.
"If you're a candidate who doesn't opt in to that because instead you want to raise big dollars from special interests," says council member and campaign finance reform supporter Mike O'Brien, "you'll have to have a pretty good story for the public about why you didn't take this path we all created for you."
The initiative would also make some other big changes to city campaigns. It would:
• Limit campaign donations to $500 per donor per candidate instead of Seattle's current $700.
• Ban candidates from accepting money from anyone who spent $5,000 or more lobbying the city over the past year, or who has a city contract that paid them more than $250,000 over the last two years.
• Impose a three-year "cooling-off period," during which any former mayor, council member, city attorney, department head, or top aide to one of those officials couldn't serve as a paid lobbyist to the city.
• Require paid signature-gatherers on city measures to disclose that they're getting paid.
• Mandate near-real-time reporting of online contributions.
In a climate of court rulings favoring money as speech, public campaign finance has a mixed record, with some systems surviving and others getting thrown out in court. Still, even Bill Maurer, a lawyer with a right-leaning national group called Institute for Justice, agrees with Honest Elections Seattle supporters. He's fought campaign restrictions before, but believes that most of this proposal is likely to hold up in court because the voucher system is optional.
There's less consensus on whether it will actually fix local elections. Maurer says lower individual contributions just make political action committees, or PACs, stronger.
"If a candidate is somehow corrupted by a $700 contribution," Maurer added via e-mail, "I don't think that lowering the amount by $200 is going to all of a sudden make that candidate ethical."
But Seattle clearly has some appetite for reform. Our $700 donation limit is already lower than the state's, and a different public campaign financing measure in 2013 failed by just 1,400 votes. That same year, voters approved the new district elections model, which was also pitched as a way to make the city council more accessible for grassroots candidates.
"[A voucher system] eliminates the divide between the donor class and voters, and that seems just profoundly democratic and progressive," says Alan Durning, executive director of the Sightline Institute, who points to other Seattle policies like the minimum wage and public preschool. "Why not match those with a sort of public funding for the 99 percent for our campaigns?"