The system is relatively new. In 2015 Seattle became the first U.S. city to approve “democracy vouchers” as a way of publicly financing political campaigns for local elections, and few large cities have followed suit. Democracy Vouchers can be used only for candidates for Seattle mayor, City Council or city attorney.
Supporters say the idea democratizes political campaigns by giving regular folks public money to contribute as they choose, presumably taking some power from rich people, companies and organizations that seem to dominate campaign finance. The program also gives candidates another way to engage directly with voters.
Because independent financing was such a big part of this year’s Seattle election, city officials lifted the voucher system’s fundraising limits to try to even out campaign funding. The program normally limits City Council candidate fundraising to $300 per donor plus the value of any vouchers they give, but increased that limit to $600 for many candidates this year.
Independent expenditure committees spent nearly $1.1 million either in support of or against Seattle Council candidates, according to data available from the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. More than $883,000 of that outside money came from business and real estate interests.
So individual campaigns were able to raise more money through private fundraising and still qualify for Democracy Vouchers this year, but it’s anyone’s guess which dollars – independent fundraising or the vouchers – had more influence on the outcome in City Council races.
Each Seattle registered voter received four $25 Democracy Vouchers this past spring to distribute electronically, by mail or to hand directly to a City Council candidate or campaign. People who are not registered to vote, but are at least 18, live in Seattle and are a citizen or a green card holder, can also apply to use the vouchers.
Candidates eligible to receive vouchers are listed on the city’s participating candidates’ page. Candidates are allowed to ask for vouchers just as they might solicit other kinds of campaign contributions, including at in-person town halls or when they knock on doors during campaigning.
Since Seattle started its Democracy Voucher program, voters in Austin, Texas, have rejected a similar idea repeatedly, most recently in April 2021. Voters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, defeated a similar measure in November 2019. Voters in Oakland, California, joined Seattle in publicly funding local campaigns in 2022.
One University of Washington academic study found the Seattle Democracy Voucher system was successful at increasing the number of Seattle residents who contributed to campaigns. And the city’s 2019 audit of the program found that since it started, participation in elections increased by three measures: more candidates, more voters and closer races.
Joy Hollingsworth collected 6,016 vouchers in her successful campaign for City Council District 3. She says the $150,400 boost to her campaign was valuable, but what she really liked about the voucher system was the way it helped her engage directly with voters.
“It’s not just $100,” said Hollingsworth, who says she and her campaign knocked on more than 20,000 doors this past year. Sometimes those visits earned them vouchers, sometimes they did some voter education, but mostly they just had an opportunity to meet community members and talk about needs in District 3, which includes Capitol Hill, the Central District, Montlake and Madison Valley.
Hollingsworth’s campaign even created a cute little cartoon video to explain the voucher system to voters.
“We had to ask for them,” Hollingsworth said, noting that some people seemed to keep them by their door, ready to give them out to a candidate who knocked. The vouchers represented something bigger than the fundraising dollars attached to them. “It’s also like asking people for their vote,” she said.
Hollingsworth, a third-generation Seattleite who grew up in District 3, likes the way Democracy Vouchers empower both voters and candidates.
“I think the Democracy Voucher program is extremely valuable for people who don’t have a wealthy network,” the small-business owner said. For voters, it means they can engage with whichever candidates they want and then feel like they can be part of their success, she added.
Seven of the 45 City Council candidates collected more than 5,000 vouchers this year, totalling more than $138,000 each, which they could spend on anything related to their campaign that they could also spend private donations on: flyers, ads, mailings, staff, etc.
Most of the top voucher collectors won their races, but the winners also raised private cash donations and many benefitted from outside expenditures.
While the voucher program has many fans, some Seattleites would like to see improvements to make it easier to access. Jean Craciun, a candidate in District 1 who lost in the primary, says there is a lot of confusion about the best path to qualify, and she wants the approval process to be quicker.
Craciun said it took a month to get her paperwork processed and months more to get her first voucher check. “Everyone was saying I was not viable ’cause I had no resources!!!” she wrote in an email.
“The monies came too late for most DV [Democracy Voucher] candidates. The DV group was understaffed and gave inconsistent directions and instructions,” she added, noting that she was told that some of the signatures on her vouchers couldn’t be verified. “The system is inefficient and ineffective in accomplishing its stated goals … to engage those otherwise disenfranchised voters.”
Ron Davis, who lost a close race for District 4, said the main problem he sees with vouchers is how they shift power toward independent expenditures because of the limits the system places on other candidate fundraising. He would try to fix that by increasing the size of vouchers -- maybe $100 for the primary and $100 for the general election -- and make it easier for residents to access them.
Next year, only one City Council race is expected to appear on the ballot – to fill the remainder of the at-large seat that will be vacated by Teresa Mosqueda, who won a position on the King County Council. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission has already decided to distribute just two vouchers instead of the usual four to voters next spring. The City Council will appoint a replacement to serve for 2024 before voters choose a more permanent replacement next November.
The Commision also decided in October, before they knew whether Mosqueda would win her election to the King County Council, that the vouchers would not be mailed until after the Washington presidential primary in March to avoid confusing voters.