Seattle residents who are registered to vote will receive four $25 “democracy vouchers". Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Daniel X. O'Neil / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), James Puckett / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Voters in Seattle, a city that has led the nation in many innovations, has approved a ballot initiative that if applied nationally could finally break the logjam on campaign finance — and banish big money.

Seattle, which was first in the country in introducing things like good word processing software and decent coffee, and which pioneered a dramatic increase in the minimum wage that has spread nationally, could again have the magic touch. So we’d best pay close attention.

The Fine Print

Last week, Seattle residents voted in favor of the “Honest Elections” initiative — one of the most innovative and aggressive campaign-finance laws ever devised.

Here’s what the new measure, known as I-122, does:

• It bans campaign contributions from anyone who who spends more than $5,000 on lobbying.

• It bans donations from companies with more than $250,000 worth of city contracts.

• It prevents city officials and their top aides from working as lobbyists right after leaving their current jobs.

• It sets a hard cap of $500 for donations to candidates in city-wide elections.

• It increases transparency.

Given general discouragement over whether it is possible to fix the money-in-politics problem, backers were understandably elated.

“Big corporate interests and lobbyists in Seattle have a stronger voice in local government than ordinary people,” the backers of Initiative 122 said. “Seattle campaigns are so expensive they discourage many potential candidates who aren’t personally rich or politically connected. Voter turnout is decreasing while voter apathy and distrust are growing.”

Together, the provisions pose a formidable challenge to the current system. But the most innovative feature, and the one that should be watched most closely, is the language that details how campaigns will be funded going forward.

Democracy Vouchers

In the future, Seattle residents who are registered to vote will receive four $25 “democracy vouchers,” which they can donate to a political campaign at no cost to themselves. Campaigns that opt to receive funding in this way can then redeem them for cash.

In theory, this system not only gives all voters the option of financially supporting candidates they like but, perhaps more importantly, it encourages candidates who want to take advantage of this “free money” to woo voters instead of billionaires.

By accepting democracy vouchers, candidates would have to agree to abide by a hard spending cap that varies by office (from $800,000 for mayoral campaigns to $150,000 for district city council campaigns).

Democracy vouchers are paid for either out of the city’s general fund or through a slight increase in the property tax for homes worth more than $400,000.

Safeguards Needed

Whether this attempt to rein in political spending will change the tenor of politics in Seattle remains to be seen. Some safeguards to prevent candidates from gaming the new system through voter-manipulation schemes are already in place: for example, candidates redeeming democracy vouchers must participate in debates and meet certain requirements regarding local support and small donations.

As in any experiment, further fixes may be needed to achieve the desired outcome of leveling the campaign-donation playing field.

And even if somebody manages to find a loophole that allows them to pay for the repair of their minivan with democracy vouchers, would that be any worse than having a few fat cats buy the candidates of their choice? At least, trying out such a system locally may allow some of the kinks to be ironed out before it is applied elsewhere.

Government of the Few for the Few, or …

Although the initiative passed with broad support, not everybody in Seattle was on board. The Seattle Times, for example, urged voters to reject the measure and accused its backers of hypocrisy.

“The I-122 campaign itself has raised more than $500,000, mostly from a few deep-pocketed, out-of-state donors who want to use Seattle as a testing ground for campaign-finance-reform ideas,” the paper said in an editorial.

However, it seems clear that such a testing ground for new ideas is sorely needed. In the early stages of the presidential race, 158 families and the companies they control have accounted for nearly half of all campaign spending.

How different would the 2016 primaries look if the donations of billionaires were capped at some reasonable multiple of $500 and every registered voter had a hundred bucks in democracy vouchers to hand out?


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Seattle Panorama (Tiffany Von Arnim / FlickrCC BY 2.0)

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0 responses to “Seattle’s Plan to Save American Democracy — It Could Affect You”

  1. Ron Fraser says:

    Great move, Seattle. What are the other cities waiting for?

  2. From Our Facebook Page says:

    (Comment by reader Lexipher P. Talionis) I like it, I think it could work. One question … who are these ” few deep-pocketed, out-of-state donors who want to use Seattle as a testing ground for campaign-finance-reform ideas”?

  3. dmillerfla says:

    This is not going to work because they are allowing too much money to be donated. What they need to do is eliminate the need for the money by providing Free TV Ad and Debate Time; to do in effect what some of the recent Republican debates have done, which is to show the candidates for who they are – assuming and assuring that there are no biased panels asking the questions. The candidate ads could be sponsored by groups of advertisers who randomly are assigned and not because of a political bias; I am sure they could work something out in that regard.

  4. Paul E. Merrell, J.D. says:

    Poor solution. The answer is to get money out of politics, not to publicly fund candidates. Over 600 cities and counties plus 16 states have passed resolutions endorsing a constitutional amendment abolishing constititutional rights for corporations and *requiring* all levels of government to ensure that in any ballot measure, no person gains any advantage by use of money, including their own. Don’t be followed by watered-down versions that grant Congress and state legislatures discretion to adopt such measures; support the original version that requires all branches of government to get money out of politics.

  5. FiuToYou says:

    A Big Bravo to the ‘Voters in Seattle’ and to Washington State in general. It’s about time a ‘grass roots’ campaign got into action to stop corruption in America’s voting process. Let’s kick out the log-jams and bring in some new blood. I’m not saying that a politician can’t stay in power, but it will be easier to bring him/her down if they stray from the path. I personally feel that lobbyism should be outlawed 100%! Let the general population take back control of the government and get the multi-billionaires out . It’s been too long. Again, ‘Bravo Seattle’!!!!!

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