EDITORIAL | Democracy vouchers a worthy experiment for public financing

Amongst the typical deluge of bills and junk mail, something else arrived in many Seattle mailboxes earlier this month.

As a result of the passage of Initiative 122 in November 2015, four $25 “Democracy Vouchers” were sent to registered voters in the city, as Seattle’s foray into the foreign concept of public financing for local elections. 

The main ideas behind the effort are laudable: Big money should have less influence in elections, and the best potential candidates shouldn’t be kept from running because they lack personal wealth or political connections. 

Voters can assign vouchers to campaigns by returning them to candidates, or mailing them to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, and the candidates that apply and qualify for the program spend those funds, up to set limits ($800,000 for mayor, $300,000 for an at-large city council seat, and $150,000 for a district seat). 

Whether this is the way to handle it — public funding through a 10-year, $30 million property tax levy — remains to be seen. 

But there’s that old adage about not knowing until you try, and that rings true here. Compared to the other taxes levied on Seattle residents, about 65 cents a month in taxes on a $400,000 property is hardly a drop in the bucket. Remember, the city’s total budget is approximately $5 billion a year, give or take. The Sightline Institute noted that the $3 million a year collected through the levy is the equivalent of one week of work on the city’s share of the viaduct and seawall replacement project. One week.

Opponents have argued that there isn’t nearly as much funding for the program as there are registered voters who could theoretically return the vouchers. That’s true, but it also assumes that the program will be so popular that the funding mechanism is fatally flawed. Unfortunately, nowhere near 100 percent of eligible citizens register and vote, and ultimately a very small portion of people donate to a political campaign. In 2013, it was only around one to two percent of voters in the city. 

This also ignores the spending limits put in place for each candidate. 

Once a candidate hits their limit, they’ll stop seeking out vouchers. Those that have strong feelings about their preferred candidate will be motivated to get their donation in quickly. Others won’t bother, which is their choice. It would be quite an assumption to believe that every voter must so emphatically like at least one candidate to the point where they would want to financially buoy their effort. 

Change doesn’t happen overnight, and public financing advocates across the country will be closely watching Seattle, to see if our city has uncovered the best way of funding local campaigns. 

It could be all for naught. 

But at least we get to find out.