City of Seattle – Democracy Voucher Program – Public Campaign Finance
What if you were given $100 that you could use to support local candidates of your choice running for office in your community? In Seattle, more than 480,000 residents were given four $25 vouchers they could give to candidates running for local office. The goals of the program are to increase the number of residents donating to local campaigns and to encourage residents to run for local office.
Prior to the Democracy Voucher Program, about 1% of Seattle residents donated to support local candidates running for office. Now, after just two election cycles with the Democracy Voucher Program, 8% of Seattle residents are contributing to local campaigns.
Additionally, running for office is expensive, and fundraising may prohibit some from running. Public campaign financing allows candidates to spend more time directly engaging with residents and less time fundraising.
The Democracy Voucher Program was one of several campaign finance reforms passed by the citizen-led initiative “Honest Elections Seattle” (I-122), which was approved by voters in 2015. Voters also approved a $3 million per year property tax for 10 years to create a public funding source. Through this funding, residents can support local candidates running for office or to finance their own campaigns.
At the beginning of each election year, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission sends eligible Seattle residents Democracy Vouchers by mail. Residents then assign one or more vouchers to candidates who they’d like to support. Residents may return their vouchers using the postage-paid envelope included with their vouchers or give their vouchers directly to the campaign.
The purpose of the program is to increase the number of residents who donate to local campaigns and to increase the number of candidates who run in local elections. Residents benefit from this program by using Democracy Vouchers as a platform to amplify their political voices in Seattle. Candidates, instead of relying on traditional methods of campaigning by calling the existing pool of donors, can knock on almost any door in Seattle and ask for a donation in the form of a Democracy Voucher. For residents, Democracy Vouchers offer an opportunity to communicate directly with candidates.
Seattle is the first and only city in the U.S., if not the world, with this type of public campaign financing.
In 2019, the SEEC launched the Democracy Voucher Online Portal as an option for residents to electronically assign their vouchers to their preferred candidates. This online option provides another tool and method for engaging residents in the political process.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Seattle Democracy Voucher Program is a unique public campaign finance program and currently the only program of its kind in the United States—if not the world.
Currently, other public campaign finance programs operate on a matching or grant funding basis. For example, if a person donates $10 to a candidate, the matching fund program may multiply their donation by a factor of 6, resulting in a $60 donation.
Seattle’s program turns every eligible resident into a potential donor. Residents are not required to use their own personal funds to contribute, but instead it puts $100 in the hands of everyday residents for the purpose of making a contribution to their preferred candidate.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Currently, the Democracy Voucher Program is in the implementation and evaluation phase. The program was first used in the 2017 election and again in 2019.
Seattle’s elections are held every other year. Because there has not been an identical election and no other jurisdiction has a similar program, the SEEC will require more data from future election years to continue the evaluation of the program.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Residents led the initial efforts of drafting and petitioning the voters to get the Initiative on the ballot. The initiative was then voted on and passed by the people.
Government officials such as King County Elections (KCE) administers the City’s elections. Using the voter registration signature, KCE verifies the signature on each Democracy Voucher, ensuring its authenticity.
The program now contracts with local civil society organizations to conduct targeted outreach.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Seattle Residents: Residents benefit from this legislation by being able to use Democracy Vouchers to donate to candidates of their choice.
Candidates: This program benefits candidates by providing a funding mechanism for candidates without access to traditional sources of funding.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Historically, about 1% of Seattle residents donated to local campaigns. Now with the Democracy Voucher Program, 4-5% of Seattle residents used their vouchers in its first year. In 2019, the percentage of Seattle residents who used their vouchers increased to 8%.
Before the Democracy Voucher Program, residents who donated tended to live in more affluent areas of the city. Now, through the innovation of Democracy Vouchers, donors are coming from across the city.
Additionally, the percent of local donors to local campaigns has risen from 70% of the donors to 90%, infusing local campaigns with local money.
In 2017, BERK Consulting completed an independent evaluation of the program. The study showed that a more representative sample of Seattle residents contributed to local campaigns and that public support for the program is high.
In both election years, most candidates running for office chose to participate in the program and were able to run competitive campaigns.
Challenges and Failures
Educating the public about campaign financing can be challenging. The majority of residents have not donated to campaigns. The legislation directs the SEEC to prioritize engagement to underrepresented communities by requiring translated materials in 14 languages. The SEEC also dedicates funding towards targeted outreach.
While there are strong partnerships with community organizations to conduct targeted outreach, there are still many barriers to participation.
We also heard from communities that some immigrant and refugee communities are afraid to interface with the government. These fears may be based on the current political climate in the U.S. or from experiences they had in their home countries. As a result, some residents may not wish to apply for the program.
Also, some residents do not believe the funding source for the voucher program is constitutional, which led to a lawsuit. In 2019, the Washington Supreme Court reviewed the case and unanimously upheld the program.
Conditions for Success
Conditions necessary for the success of this program stem from having strong advocates for the program in the community. The idea for this program started with a coalition of residents and organizations who drafted the legislation and got it on the ballot, establishing strongly rooted community support.
In addition, having a non-partisan and independent agency to administer the program that is separate from the elected governing structure is crucial for accountability and transparency in elections.
Lastly, ensuring an independent and dedicated funding source is important to maintain efficacy of the program. Most city programs come from a general fund that is controlled by elected leaders.
This program has not been replicated by any other jurisdiction.
One of the main lessons learned from implementing this complex program is the need to create simple yet informative messaging. This can be challenging, especially when translating complicated topics into different languages. A best practice we incorporate is using plain language and simple sentences. We also have native language speakers review translated content to ensure the context is correct.