The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) amended the city’s democracy voucher program, limiting the ability of paid campaign staffers to collect vouchers, a move that campaigns say could reduce the impact of the system.
The democracy voucher program, which was passed by voters in 2015, allocates four $25 vouchers to eligible Seattle residents who can donate them to candidates for City Council, city attorney and mayor by either giving them directly to a campaign or mailing them to the SEEC. There is also an option to electronically turn in vouchers.
The program’s rollout was staggered for the various offices. City Council races became eligible first in 2017, followed by all races in 2019 and 2021.
In exchange for participation in the program, campaigns must agree to stricter spending and contribution limits. The goal of the program is to increase participation in municipal elections.
If people lose their vouchers, they can get voucher replacement forms. Under the amendment, campaign staff can no longer collect those voucher replacement forms during work hours, making canvassing for vouchers more difficult. Previously, staff could collect replacement forms from potential contributors. That made it easy for supporters to give their vouchers immediately to a campaign. Now, supporters must turn in a replacement form to a volunteer or to the city directly, either by mail or online.
The commission also reaffirmed rules implemented in June 2021 that require campaign staff or volunteers who collect vouchers to clearly disclose their role to potential donors. These changes will affect the seven City Council district elections that will be held later this year.
According to SEEC Executive Director Wayne Barnett, these changes were made following an influx of accusations of “voucher harvesting” by campaigns. He said that the commission decided to impose these limits in order to address the backlash and uphold the democracy voucher program’s integrity.
The program will be up for renewal soon because the property tax levy that funds it expires in 2025. Barnett said that the democracy voucher program has encountered a lot of opposition from groups such as the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and that he would hate to see it die.
In 2021, The Stranger reported that staff working for former mayoral candidate Andrew Grant Houston were criticized for collecting vouchers in a misleading manner. One complainant said that a collector had pitched the voucher replacement form as a signature to “support the homeless.”
However, these changes could make it much harder for the democracy voucher program to achieve its intended goal of increasing civic participation and reducing the influence of the wealthy. Chetan Soni, a campaign consultant who is currently working on Matthew Mitnick’s campaign for the District 4 Seattle City Council position, said that the concerns about voucher collection are misplaced.
“I think there is no such thing as democracy vouchers being misused because they’re coming directly from the hands of the people into candidates,” he said.
Soni said that, on the 2021 campaigns he worked on, the vouchers were collected in a fair and transparent manner and that the campaigns verified the signatures and addresses of vouchers they received. He said that the collectors deserved to be respected and paid fairly for their hard work. In his experience, Soni said that the vast majority of vouchers collected directly by campaigns were via replacement forms as opposed to the original vouchers.
Early data suggests that the program could have a positive effect on Seattle elections. In a May 2022 study co-authored by University of Washington professor Alan Griffith, researchers said that the democracy voucher program contributed to an increase in election participation. They found that, during the 2017 and 2019 elections, the number of unique donors increased by more than 350 percent, with small campaign contributions under $200 nearly tripling. The researchers also argued that the number of candidates rose by 86 percent, reducing the likelihood of incumbents winning reelection.
However, the restrictions on voucher collection could end up counteracting the program’s intended purpose, making it harder for people who are not usually involved in the political process to participate.
“White middle class, upper middle class people generally have access and pay more attention to democracy vouchers coming up than do low income, BIPOC, renters, students, people that are already marginalized in these conversations,” Soni said. “With these new rules, it makes it so their voice can’t be heard as much just because replacement forms are more accessible, and people need to be able to access elections — in this case democracy vouchers — as easy as possible. And replacement forms do just that.”
Read more of the Jan. 11-17, 2023 issue.