Seattle Is About to Take a Bold Approach to Fighting Big Money in Politics


Last year, Seattle made history by becoming the first city in the United States to pass a $15 minimum wage. This year, the city is on the brink of another major political milestone which could radically transform the influence of money in politics.

On Nov. 3, Seattle voters will decide on Initiative 122, also known as the "Honest Elections" initiative, which would institute America's first system of "democracy vouchers" that give everyday citizens the ability to direct public funds to the candidates of their choosing. Supporters say the program could pave the way for everyday voters to have more control over the city's elections.

The vote has attracted the attention of observers nationwide, who say this could be the most important breakthrough on campaign finance reform the country has seen in years.

"Seattle is developing an alternative way of facilitating small dollar contributions," Harvard law professor and Democratic presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig, who has made campaign finance reform the central issue in his campaign, told Mic. "It's the most attractive public funding system we can develop."

Here's how it works: The Honest Elections initiative would implement a host of regulations to tighten Seattle's campaign finance and lobbying rules, but the buzz centers around the system of democracy vouchers.

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Under the proposal, every registered voter would receive four $25 coupons in the mail during an election year, for a total of $100. Voters can donate that money to any candidate who has qualified to participate. Participation is voluntary. If candidates opt in, they must first collect a minimum number of small donations to qualify. Then, each candidate is free to collect vouchers and exchange them for city funds money to finance their campaign.

Candidates who participate must abide by a set of rules, including caps on spending (ranging from $150,000 for district city council elections to $800,000 for mayoral races), limits on private contributions, a ban on fundraising on behalf of any independent groups and mandatory participation in at least three public debates. Candidates are also permitted to raise money from traditional sources alongside democracy vouchers, but donations are limited to $250 or $500, depending on the office.

Finally, if a super PAC supports a candidate who is not using the vouchers, candidates in the program are allowed to raise additional private funds and their spending caps are lifted.

Why supporters are excited: Although previous attempts at campaign finance reform in states like Maine and Arizona have had mixed results, supporters feel Seattle's voucher system will be different.

"The reason to think it may spread is that there is no other system of citizen funding that is quite as democratic or quite as intuitive as this," Alan Durning, executive director of the Sightline Institute, a sustainability nonprofit that helped develop the initiative, told Mic.

According to Durning, the initiative forces candidates to knock on doors and spend time talking directly to voters.

"From a candidate's perspective, this is a complete game changer," Durning said. "Candidates now have a way to run for office and successfully fund their campaigns by going to scores of house parties and by going door to door and by doing town hall forums, because every voter in the city will be worth up to $100 for them. The system is designed to turn the incentives for candidates on its head."

Other proponents say the initiative will allow low-income voters to have a larger voice in the political process. Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman co-authored a book with Ian Ayres in 2004 called Voting With Dollars: A New Paradigm for Campaign Finance, which first introduced the idea of democracy vouchers.

"Everybody, even if you're below the poverty line, will get 100 democracy dollars," Ackerman told Mic. "This is a tremendous empowerment of ordinary people. Ordinary people throughout the campaign will have a sense of themselves as democratic citizens."

Previous attempts at campaign finance reform have also run into constitutional hurdles, with some being gutted by the Supreme Court. But Ackerman says Seattle's program will stand up to the legal process.

"This proposal is completely constitutional right now," he said. "If you're a candidate and you don't want to compete for my $100 democracy vouchers, and you can raise $10 million dollars, go right ahead. We can say to the Supreme Court after Citizens United, 'OK, money is speech. But what we're doing is increasing the amount of speech by leveling the playing field.'"

An opening for millennials: One other group who could benefit is young people, who supporters say will be more encouraged to participate in politics.

"Millennials are typically not a target for political candidates when they're looking for donors," Brianna Thomas, a 33-year-old organizer for the initiative who ran for city council earlier this year, told Mic. "They think either we don't have the money or, if we do, we're not going to be engaged. Millennials have caught onto that and we're tired of being overlooked. This election seeks to elevate the voice of ordinary voters."

"The push for this came from younger folks," said Estevan Munoz-Howard, another millennial organizer who has been a leader of the initiative. "In terms of beneficiaries, it's young people, communities of color and anyone else who's underrepresented in government."

Recent polling of Democratic voters put support for the measure at over 60%, and the initiative has gained the endorsement of Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), along with outside campaign finance organizations like Every Voice.

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But not everyone is excited: One of the groups lining up to oppose the Seattle initiative is No Election Vouchers, which argues that the proposal is simply unnecessary.

"The Honest Elections initiative is suggesting corruption in a city where there isn't any, or at least, there is very little," Robert Mahon, former chairman of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and a Democrat, told Mic. "We don't have the sort of the same entrenched incumbency or fear of change that you see in a lot of systems. This is more about using Seattle as a testbed for things that could be rolled out elsewhere."

Mahon and his group are also concerned about the cost of the plan, and says the initiative could result in more independent money flowing into Seattle's system from special interests using paper vouchers. Honest Elections Seattle, the group pushing the initiative,has received about $900,000 in donations from across the country, whereas the opposition has raised $44,000, according to disclosures on the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission website.

"I think we are going to see more independent expenditure money flowing into our elections than before because of this program," Mahon said. "It will benefit the very interests that currently have an influence on our system."

The vouchers will cost Seattle an estimated $3 million a year, according to the text of the initiative, which will be raised through a small property tax.

But Durning dismissed concerns about the cost of the program.

"It's astonishingly inexpensive," he said. "The initiative is just $3 million a year. It's less than the city spends on landscaping. If we can afford landscaping, we can afford this."

A model for the rest of the country? Following Seattle's successful campaign to raise the minimum wage, supporters of the Honest Elections initiative believe the city is quickly becoming a model for progressive policy nationwide.

"That is the most exciting political strategy that we've seen on issue," Josh Silver, the director of Represent.Us, an anti-corruption organization which has funded this initiative, told Mic.

While Congress remains gridlocked, Silver says change must start at the local level. He sees a parallel in the successful fight for other progressive causes.

"The fight around money in politics is taking a page out of the playbook for marriage equality and marijuana decriminalization," Silver said. "This is a promising strategic approach that is starting to play out across the country now," said Silver. "We need to go to the ballot initiative, much like we saw with gay marriage, and put it to the people and then we'll start to see a wave of reform across the country."

If the initiative passes, Thomas says Seattle will be a testing ground for the rest of the nation.

"We've been prime for passing progressive policies before, I think we're absolutely prime to do it again," she said. "Democracy is an experiment. Seattle should be proud, and not afraid, to try new things for the good of our community," she said.