Seattle's unique Democracy Voucher program was supposed to limit the influence of big donors, open up races to a wider variety of candidates, increase the power of the Stranger Election Control Board (pg. 49), and, ultimately, create the conditions for the candidates with the best ideas—rather than the most money—to win the day.
The program, which gives all eligible Seattle voters four $25 vouchers to support whichever candidate(s) they wish and limits campaigns to $800,000 in spending for the primary and general elections, could use some serious marketing help. But the potential for this program to work well exists.
The current state of the mayoral race, which now runs on voucher money for the first time since the program's implementation, arguably speaks to the success of the program. The campaigns for both Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk and architect Andrew Grant Houston claim they recently already hit the $400,000 fundraising cap for the primary. Both entered the race early, so that's not too surprising. However, though both candidates have worked in and around politics, neither have held an elected office.
But how should we read this success in an electoral environment where most if not all candidates plan to max out on donations before the middle of next month, when campaigns will start spending money on mailers and flyers and voter outreach? And what will the campaigns do if some union or business PAC swoops in and drops a bundle in support of one candidate or the other, thus busting the cap and launching a race for hard cash? And what are people gossiping about???
To get a sense of how the vouchers inform each campaign's calculus—and to see if some of these more establishment figures feel nervous about trailing first-time candidates in the voucher race—I checked in with the top contenders.
"Can I get a signature to support the homeless?"
Though Echohawk and Houston currently lead the voucher race, they both took different paths to early dominance. Echohawk has kept her campaign mostly in the digital realm, while Houston, who prides himself on having the race's only unionized campaign staff, has relied partly on subcontractors to collect vouchers in the streets.
No one else in the race is paying contractors to collect vouchers in the streets, and a few people have raised concerns about the pitches they've heard from the people gathering vouchers on Houston's behalf.
Derek Richards, former chair of the King County Young Democrats, said he took a walk down Broadway to celebrate his fully vaxxed status when one of Houston's voucher collectors asked if he wanted to "sign to help the homeless." Richards said he suspected the table might be "that Terrible Tim Burgess Initiative," Compassion Seattle, so he took a closer look. But when he looked, he only saw a bunch of Democracy Voucher replacement sheets pre-filled with Houston's name.
"So I said in a puzzled way 'those are Democracy Vouchers,' and the individual at the table said 'Okay, have a good day,' and moved on to the next person," Richards wrote in a direct message.
He added that he thought the pitch strategy was "fine," as long as people "understand that it goes to a candidate's campaign and that then the vouchers at home can't be used." Voters only get four vouchers, so if they unwittingly sign them away on the streets thinking that they were actually just signing a petition to help the homeless, then that would suck.
Another person described a similar experience with a Houston voucher collector and sent an audio recording of the interaction. The source who gave me the recording requested anonymity and asked me not to share the audio. Instead, I've included the full transcript at the bottom of this post. The gist of the story goes as follows.
As with Richards's experience, the voucher collector, who introduced himself to the source as Tyler, also pitched the vouchers as "a signature to support the homeless." After a follow-up question from the source, Tyler named his client, Andrew Grant Houston, and said the campaign was geared around getting the homeless out of tents and into rehabilitation.
Tyler then claimed he and his partner would take the vouchers "to the people who make decisions with the money" and "then maybe we can start to build a center or treatment or some type of facility to do something." The source then asked if "all the money goes to the homeless," and Tyler said, "Yessir, just about." Since Tyler was really collecting vouchers and not money for the homeless, this source found the pitch deceptive.
Hooking passersby with an issue-pitch is pretty standard for voucher collecting efforts, but normally campaigns adorn the tables with literature and posters, and the candidates themselves often stand behind the tables. But neither Richards nor this source saw any Houston branding or campaign materials on the table—just replacement forms on clipboards.
Dylan Austin, a spokesperson for the Houston campaign, said similar concerns surfaced on social media in April, and he provided a couple screenshots of the complaints.
"Out of over 4,000 Seattleites (~13,000 vouchers), only a handful of these notes came up, and none seemed to make sense given the details," Austin said. He also noted that this "feedback came from predominantly older, upper-class, and white areas about BIPOC voucher collectors."
As for Houston's lack of tabling? "Being a high-risk individual, Ace is stoked to finally get out and start joining in on the fun, now that he's fully vaccinated. The Youth Team, voucher collectors, and volunteers have done incredible work representing the campaign in the meantime," he said.
Nevertheless, the campaign brought the issue to Riall Johnson, the consultant Houston paid to collect vouchers for the campaign.
In this case, Johnson, who runs Prism West, said he hired six independent contractors to table outside light rail stations for a couple months. KUOW featured the operation back in March. The collectors made a 10% commission on the amount of voucher money they collected. Over the phone, Johnson said the contractors worked between six and eight weeks, and pulled in around 100 signatures on a good day and around 20 on a bad day, averaging about $1,000 a week. All but one of the voucher collectors were people of color, several had worked with him on previous campaigns, and some had experienced homelessness.
Johnson said he trained the collectors, as he's done in the past, to lead their pitches with a policy issue they actually cared about rather than with the candidate's name. For Houston's campaign, those issues included 2,500 new tiny homes for the homeless, a Green New Deal, and a commitment to defund the police, he said. But he stressed that he told collectors to clearly state that passersby would be signing away their Democracy Vouchers to Houston.
Johnson speculated that the situation Richards described actually aligned with Johnson's training, in that "the canvasser probably sniffed out Richards's disinterest and turned to other affairs to get more signatures."
But the other interaction I detailed above was not representative of his training and constituted a fireable offense, he said.
Though the collector introduced himself to the source as Tyler, Johnson said no one named “Tyler” appeared on his payroll. He guessed that one of his collectors may have brought on a volunteer or a trainee to help. To keep the campaign honest, he said he wouldn't submit any vouchers signed by a "Tyler" to the city's election commission, and he'd also return to the city any accepted vouchers signed by a "Tyler."
“I’ve overseen the gathering of a million signatures in four different states. I've fired people before; it's my job to sniff out fraud. We don’t fuck around with our validity and our integrity," Johnson said.
As for the lack of campaign branding, Johnson said he gives contractors "posters and flyers" from the Houston campaign, but he guessed the collectors may have forgotten to bring them in these cases.
Overall, Johnson argued that his voucher collecting strategy was above board and that the city ethics commission "loves us over there." Over the phone, Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett said "Riall's firm is an authorized campaign representative for the Houston campaign, and we give them replacement forms the same as we would any other campaign."
Setting these concerns aside, Johnson attributed the success of the voucher collection campaign to the "boldness" of Houston's progressive approach. "I can never get people to sign onto vouchers in the streets with the soft-ass issues that these other people are running on," he said.
Though Johnson pulled the canvassers off the streets once he estimated the campaign had hit the cap, he aims to gather a total of around $500,000 in vouchers, with around $100,000 to hold for the general if Houston makes it through the primary.
In the meantime, the Houston campaign is focused on putting out policy and texting voters to pledge vouchers "to the movement."
Unlike the Houston campaign, Colleen Echohawk's team has not yet taken their message to the streets. In light of the ongoing pandemic, her team elected to hold 40 virtual town halls that target different neighborhoods around town. They hit the cap earlier this week, taking in about 33% of the vouchers to mayoral candidates to date, according to the campaign's analysis.
Her consultant, John Wyble of WinPower Strategies, chalked up the campaign's success thus far to three factors; the candidate's "outsider" status, her extensive network within the nonprofit world, and the choice to hop in early.
"There's no question people want a new direction, and I think that’s reflected in the vouchers," he said.
Wyble said the campaign's "change" message has been working, and they know because "we're getting money when we use it."
Echohawk also hired Blue Wave to push out fundraising emails and social media asks, which has provided a "continual flow" of funds, Wyble said. (Many progressive and conservative Democrats' campaigns have used Blue Wave, but the Seattle Chamber of Commerce's political arm also used them as compliance officers in their 2019 city council meddling.)
Wyble said the campaign hopes to have between $250,000-260,000 to spend on paid communication and organizing when the time comes, but, like Johnson, he also expects some independent expenditure to bust the cap. "I think that’ll happen in this race... and there will be candidates who can raise money and ones who can’t." He felt confident that Echohawk would count herself among the candidates who wouldn't have trouble making that switch.
On Wednesday an independent expenditure committee called “Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future” filed with the city’s elections commission. The PAC’s officers include Mike Malone, Rita Brogan, and Nate Miles, who are all listed as endorsers on Harrell’s website. Campaigns cannot legally coordinate with IEs, but if we’re looking for a cap-buster, then this one might be a good candidate.
A spokesperson for the Harrell campaign said “Bruce is grateful for the overwhelming support he’s received from community members across the city, particularly in Seattle’s diverse Black and AAPI communities, who are looking for a mayor to unite Seattle and make real progress on the challenges we face.”
A little crowd canvasing
Seattle City Council President Lorena Gonzalez, who was instrumental in pushing for the voucher program in the first place, is running in third in terms of voucher collection. But Alex Koren, a spokesperson for the campaign, isn't worried about hitting the cap.
"We’re absolutely going to be there by our spend window," he said, adding that the campaign was "proud" to have the support of endorsers such as "Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, UFCW 21, and Unite Here Local 8." Those last two unions are some of the largest and most active in city races.
The campaign also hired Katherine Bobman to handle fundraising emails and to "provide guidance on social media as it pertains to fundraising."
Koren said the campaign has taken a hybrid approach to campaigning, mixing up online events and phone banking with some outdoor stuff. He said volunteers, who he described as "young students who were really inspired by the campaign," joined the OneAmerica portion of the May Day march last weekend and collected vouchers in the crowd. "We got I think about $1,000 worth of vouchers in one hour," he said.
Farrell's online-only, for now
Until more people in the city become fully vaccinated, former Washington State Representative Jessyn Farrell is keeping her campaign online.
Left Wing Digital principal Will Casey, a spokesperson for the campaign, said they've limited voucher solicitation efforts to text banking, emails, and social media asks. Farrell is also doing "traditional call time," where the candidate just hits the phones and asks for dough. She also hired Argo Strategies to do some fundraising stuff.
Though they're currently behind in the voucher race, Casey said the team is "on a good path" and plans to reach the cap before they need to start spending big on voter outreach.
"We’re being very intentional about using the time the voucher program has provided us by capping everyone’s spending to doing things like developing plans to tackle climate change and ending gun violence and stuff that matters to voters," he said. Farrell takes those ideas to digital town halls, where she leads conversations with relevant stakeholders and asks for feedback. Casey said they couldn't devote so much time to that voter engagement strategy if it weren't for the voucher program.
If an independent expenditure does blow the cap, Casey said "we’ll be in a position to compete same as all the other campaigns."
The grocery store strategy
Monisha Harrell, a consultant for former Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell's campaign, said her team doesn't feel comfortable going door-to-door at this point in the pandemic, but they have implemented a "grocery store strategy" to help reach voters and collect some vouchers.
A couple times a week on average, Bruce (I'll use his first name to distinguish between the Harrells) and a couple volunteers will stand behind a table outside a grocery store in Seattle and strike up conversations with passersby. Harrell said Bruce and all the volunteers are vaccinated, and "everyone is outdoors, physically distanced and properly masked."
Harrell said the grocery store strategy "is about meeting voters where they are" and talking about "actual solutions" to the problems facing the city in a place "where people are more likely to feel comfortable having a conversation."
Noting that Bruce jumped in several weeks later than some of the earliest contestants, Harrell said the campaign is doing "pretty well" in terms of voucher collections. "We’ve raised about $225,000 between cash donations and vouchers, and given that we only got in mid-March those are pretty impressive numbers," she said. Harrell added that as of Wednesday the campaign had submitted $80,000 in vouchers to the election commission, so they've qualified for the program and are just waiting for the SEEC to finish the authorization process.
A "good number" of the vouchers they've raised so far have come from the grocery store campaign, but most come from the old-fashioned way: voters filling them out in their homes and mailing them in.
Harrell has every confidence the campaign will hit the cap "somewhere in the middle of July," and she praised the voucher program for opening time for Bruce to communicate more directly with voters.
One of the earliest entrants is trailing
SEED economic development director Lance Randall announced his mayoral run early, and though he has signed the pledge to participate in the voucher program he has yet to raise enough to qualify for it. In an email, he said he had "a fair amount of support coming via the democracy voucher program."
To fundraise and engage with voters, Randall said he's been holding "Zoom sessions, group forums, calls and email outreach," pitching his "comprehensive plan for moving our city forward."
"Our outreach and fundraising will continue to ramp up through a series of live-streamed town hall meetings and community events we have planned as the weather improves and we can safely gather outdoors," he added.
So, everyone's taking different paths—some more controversial than others—and everyone pretty much expects some political group to break the cap and make the race about money again. But until then, the voucher program appears to keep the candidates focused on pitching ideas and trying to come up with policies or "solutions" to stand out in the crowd.
Audio from an interaction with an Andrew Grant Houston voucher collector:
Tyler: How you doing my guy, can I get a signature to support the homeless? I appreciate that so much. So these four signatures like these other people just prove I didn’t forge your signature. And I just need your name, date of birth, and you’re all set. These absolutely have no cash value, bro. I’m just taking these as vouchers to city hall, saying me [we?] the city of Seattle are trying to get people off the streets and into rehabilitation. That’s all we’re doing man. I appreciate that.
Source: Into rehabilitation, so, that’s all this does?
Tyler: That’s right. My client Andrew Grant Houston is running for Governor, and we’re trying to get—his campaign is basically geared around—you remember CHOP when all those people were living in the tents? We’re basically trying to avoid that by getting people into rehabilitations instead of tents and streets, if that makes sense. Yeah, yeah, so you just sign—
Source: I sign this—I gotta give you 25 each time?
Tyler: No no, this is states dollars, sir. This is taxpayers money that we already pay buying stuff from the store. This is basically me taking this to the people who make decisions with the money, and saying if you guys give us—however many of these I get with my partner over there—then maybe we can start to build a center or treatment or some type of facility to do something—
Source: [Overlapping] Oh sweet, absolutely—
Tyler, cont’d: —[Overlapping] Besides just walking past people, if that makes sense, I appreciate that. I appreciate that very much.
Tyler, to someone else: Oh bro, we’ll be right here, you already know!
Tyler, now turning to Source: Just your name, date of birth—
Source: What’s the day?
Tyler: 4/28/21. I’ll fill in the rest of the dates if you just want to fill in your name and be on your way. Keep it short and sweet for you bro, I already know how it is.
Source: Thank you, thank you very much.
Tyler: Of course bro, thank you for filling that out. And don’t worry about your number or address either. They’ll call you and you’ll be irritated.
Source: Okay, I got ya.
Tyler: You know what I mean? Those fucking campaign people.
Source: I know what you mean.
Tyler: You’re all set man, thank you. What’s your name man?
Source: My name’s [Source].
Tyler: [Source name]? My name’s Tyler. Nice to meet you.
Source: Do we have to give our email?
Tyler: No, you’re all good.
Source: Awesome, awesome. I don’t have to pay them?
Tyler: No no no, you’ll wake up tomorrow and all your checks, everything will be fine. I’ll be right here tomorrow, you can come punch me in my face if [laughter].
Source: I give you my signature and they give…so it’s like a petition?
Tyler: Yessir, that’s literally it. And if they approve of it and they’re like, “I see what you’re doing and you’ve got enough signatures, I have no doubt but to grant you guys this money.”
Source: And that just goes to the homeless?
Source: All the money goes to the homeless? That’s pretty cool.
Tyler: Yessir, just about.