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Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers Program Is Raising the Voices of Everyday People

August 4, 2017 | Adam Smith

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When Seattle voters send in their ballots this November, five of their choices will have ran their campaigns funded mostly by small, grassroots donors. While big money dominates national politics, Seattle’s democracy vouchers program is transforming its city elections to limit the power of big donors and give everyday residents a bigger voice.  Tuesday’s primary was the first time the new program was available and the top two winners in both City Council races participated in the program, while a fifth participating candidate—the City Attorney—will be on November’s ballot.

“Seattle is demonstrating that while voter anger over our big-money system continues to simmer, we have the tools at our fingertips to fix our broken campaign finance system and ensure everyone, not just billionaires, can have their voice heard,” said Every Voice’s Nick Nyhart on the election results this week. “This is a complete reimagining of politics as usual, and it’s working to give those without deep pockets a voice.”

For the first time, a new “democracy voucher” program is allowing every city resident to become a political donor with four $25 democracy vouchers. Candidates who wish to fund their campaigns with the vouchers also limit their contributions to $250 and first prove their grassroots support by collecting small donations. With most of the votes in for the top-two primary election, candidates who funded their campaigns on the mix of small donations and $25 democracy vouchers from residents are leading in both City Council races. The incumbent in the City Attorney’s race is also using democracy vouchers to face off against a challenger in the general election.

Here are some indicators so far the program is working:

  • Candidates are rejecting big money to use democracy vouchers. In the three races where democracy vouchers can be used, four candidates qualified to cash in their democracy vouchers and another nine candidates rejected big-money donations while seeking qualification.
  • The donor pool is expanding as everyday residents become campaign contributors. In 2013, before democracy vouchers were in place, candidates for Mayor, City Attorney, and four City Council races ran with donations from 8,450 people overall, received over the entire cycle. This election cycle, in a little over half a year, more than 8,000 Seattle residents have already given vouchers to candidates in just three races—that doesn’t include the higher-profile race for mayor that typically attracts more donors.
  • Candidates fueled by small donors were able to compete against big money.  With a mix of candidates who decided to run using the democracy voucher program and those who decided to continue to collect large donations, democracy voucher candidates were able to effectively compete and come out on top–even in the face of big money opponents and outside spending.

For the program’s first outing, candidates for office in both City Council races and the City Attorney race are able to participate. In future elections, candidates for Mayor will have the option of running using democracy vouchers.

The frontrunner for Council Position 8, Teresa Mosqueda, credits the democracy vouchers program for “making it possible” for her to run for office in the first place.  She said, “I’m a renter, I still have student loans, I’m lucky to be in the labor movement and have a good job, but I can’t self-finance my campaign. Because I have a day job, I will go out for a two- or three-hour shift in the evenings or on the weekend, and in that amount of time I am able to talk to people and get three or four or five hundred dollars in democracy vouchers. It has been a huge benefit.”

Jon Grant, who is positioned to claim the second spot behind Mosqueda and head to the general election, said, “When you are a candidate that no one has ever heard of and you do the work of organizing low-income tenants for 10 years, these are not people with money to give to a political campaign. But now all those folks have an equal say in supporting candidates and that is what is so radical about this.”

While Congress fails to take action to keep the power of big donors in check, Seattle is the latest of a series of states, cities, and counties across the country continuing to prove that there is a path forward towards breaking out of the big-money status quo.  Voters overwhelmingly supported the creation of this program to reduce the power of big money and increase participation in politics by Seattle residents. It’s still early, and we’re learning a lot, yet the big takeaway is this: The program is so far meeting those goals.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith is Every Voice's communications director.