Every envelope of democracy vouchers contains four vouchers worth $25 each. • Photo by Kamna Shastri

Since January 3, the City of Seattle has been sending out democracy vouchers to all eligible city residents. Every envelope has four vouchers, each with a $25 value for a grand total of $100 that residents can donate to candidates throughout the year. The program’s intent is to make the campaigning process more accessible for ordinary residents who may not have a lot of money to donate to the candidates they support. The program will hopefully encourage individuals from Seattle’s diverse communities to run for candidacy without the pressure of having to know wealthy donors. Seattle is the first city in the nation to use the democracy vouchers public financing program.

The vouchers were part of Honest Elections Seattle’s Initiative 122, which passed with an affirmative vote of 63.14% in 2015. Many of the initiative’s supporting stakeholders represent Seattle’s diverse communities, including Asian Pacific Americans for Civic Engagement, Seattle King County NAACP, and El Centro de La Raza to name a few. After a year of planning the program, eligible Seattle residents should now have the vouchers. Anyone who is a registered, legal resident of Seattle is eligible for the program.

Using the Vouchers

Here is how the vouchers work: if you are a voter registered in Seattle, the vouchers will automatically be sent to you. Otherwise you can sign up to receive the vouchers as long as you are a resident of Seattle. On the front of each voucher is a place to write in the name of the candidate one wishes to endorse. At the bottom is a space for a signature.

You can then mail the vouchers to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Committee (SEEC) or directly to the candidate you are supporting. The vouchers can be used for this year’s at-large city council and city attorney races. They will not apply toward the mayoral race until 2020.

Monica Ng, Civic Engagement Program Manager at Asian Counseling and Referral Services, and Wayne Barnett, Executive Director of SEEC, stressed the importance of keeping the vouchers in a visible place, like on top of a fridge or on your bulletin board. The vouchers are valid until November 2017, and that’s enough time to lose them if they are hidden from view. If you do lose your voucher, you can always request a replacement by contacting SEEC at [email protected] or (206) 727-8855.

Along with the democracy vouchers program, the statutes of I-122 state that candidates can only receive democracy vouchers if they qualify for the program. That includes attending three debates, and adhering to a donation cap. I-122 also limits donations from city contractors and anyone who has financed a lobbyist or lobbying organization an amount of $5,000 or more in the past year. Finally, the law has also made it illegal for city officials and their aides to take on lobbying positions immediately after leaving office.

Opposing Arguments

According to the I-122 website, one argument that opponents have used to discourage the democracy vouchers program is that it hurts minority and low-income voters and seniors because they won’t understand how to use democracy vouchers. Both Ng and Barnett said that the city, and ACRS, are working to educate residents, clients, and staff about using the vouchers. In addition, the vouchers are available in 15 major languages spoken in Seattle including English. The list includes many API languages such as Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Lao, and Thai.

“The folks that wrote this policy were really intentional, they wanted to make sure that especially folks who preferred one of these languages could actually use these vouchers,” Ng said. “As far as I’ve seen usually that language outreach comes in the back end when they are talking about implementation and how accessible is it going to be for people. This is actually built into the policy itself, that it has to be available ‘in these languages.’” Ng said she hopes the prevalence of Asian and Pacific Islander languages will encourage API voters and residents to engage more with the democracy vouchers.

Another point of opposition is the claim that the program will cost too much. The democracy vouchers program takes up a small fraction of the city’s funds. The program is funded by the city’s property tax levy and will collect three million dollars a year for the vouchers program. In contrast, the city’s budget is in the billions.

Important Impacts for Representation

Honest Elections Seattle pushed the initiative—and the democracy vouchers—as a measure to limit big money in politics. Barnett suggests thinking about the policy more as a means of increasing the representation of residents and candidates.

Often, Ng says, individuals in low income communities can’t afford to donate to a candidate they support while focusing on providing transportation, food, and school supplies for their families.

“I think this gives a really good opportunity for folks that don’t necessarily have those means to donate to a political campaign and also decide if they are going to buy groceries for their children. It allows them to use their political voice by saying ‘I believe in this candidate’,” Ng said. The voucher program softens the pressing choice of one or the other and puts some amount of agency in regular residents’ hands.

With residents financially backing the candidates they support, the impact of the vouchers would hopefully also influence more candidates to campaign, Ng explained. Not everyone who wants to run for a city council position will have a pocketbook of donors who can donate large sums of money. This could discourage many office hopefuls. With the democracy vouchers, a candidate who wants to help their community could appeal to their community members and neighborhood to finance their campaign.

Ng said she hopes the program will inspire candidates to make personal contact with city residents and hear community voices.

“Further down the line we are hoping to see more folks who could be running for political office that may not have run in the first place,” Ng said.

For more information on the Democracy Vouchers Program and Honest Elections, visit www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher and honestelectionsseattle.org.

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