Groups Urge Court to Protect Seattle’s Innovative Public Financing System


Seattle’s System Passed by Over 60% of City Voters in 2015

OLYMPIA, WA – Today, the Washington Supreme Court will hear oral arguments at 4:30pm ET in Elster v. City of Seattle, a First Amendment challenge to Seattle’s pioneering public financing system.

The Superior Court of the State of Washington for King County found the city’s public financing system constitutional in a November 2017 opinion that said that the program was a valid tool for the city government to foster citizen involvement in elections, calling that goal “vital to a self-governing people.” Plaintiffs have challenged this ruling to the highest court in the state of Washington. If plaintiffs are successful and the court overturn the Superior Court’s ruling, it would strike a blow not only to campaign finance reform efforts nationwide but to the constitutional principle of self-governance.

Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program was approved by over 60 percent of city voters in 2015. The program – which went into effect in 2017 – offers any eligible adult city resident who is a U.S. citizen with four $25 “democracy vouchers” to give to qualified candidates of their choosing.

Available data from Seattle show that the democracy voucher program has already spurred impressive levels of local engagement. According to the University of Washington’s Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology, a total of 20,727 Seattle residents used their vouchers to contribute to local candidates in 2017. In addition to increasing the absolute number of city residents who contributed, Seattle’s voucher program attracted a more diverse makeup of donors to local campaigns. Compared to individuals giving a private cash contribution in Seattle’s 2017 election, voucher users were more likely to be low-to-middle income and to reside in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Further, the population of voucher donors contained a higher share of minority groups and residents under the age of 30 than the cash contributor pool.

The following groups gave statements in support of Seattle’s Democracy Dollars program:

Paul Smith, vice president at Campaign Legal Center (CLC):

“Seattle’s public financing system loosens the stranglehold that large donors have had over the terms of political debate. This case is not only about protecting campaign finance reform efforts around the country, it’s about upholding the constitutional principle of self-governance. Seattle citizens spoke loud and clear when they overwhelmingly passed the Honest Elections Seattle Initiative. The court should prioritize the First Amendment rights of city residents, by giving more people an opportunity to have their voices heard in our democracy.”

Adam Lioz, political director of Demos:

“Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program builds upon a long and clearly legal legacy of using limited public funds to ensure that a diverse range of residents drive local public election campaigns—not a narrow slice of the wealthiest donors, who are overwhelmingly white.  The voucher program serves the compelling First Amendment interest in promoting democratic self-government by reducing wealth-based barriers to entry, increasing the pool of candidates for elected office, and ensuring people of color—and anyone without thousands of dollars to spare for political contributions—can have their voices heard in the decisions that govern their lives.  We look forward to the Washington Supreme Court confirming what is already clear—the voucher program raises all City residents’ voices while silencing nobody, and is a win for local democracy.”

Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United:

“By publicly financing elections, Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program is not only changing the status quo – it’s rapidly expanding voter engagement and restoring power back to the people. More women, young people, and communities of color are participating in their democracy than ever before. The program has been so successful that municipalities, cities, and states across the country are looking to Seattle as a model to help root out the influence of Big Money. End Citizens United supports Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program and we urge the Washington Superior Court for King County to uphold it.”


CLC and Common Cause filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Sept. 20, 2017 in support of the city’s public financing system.

Learn more about Seattle’s public financing system by visiting CLC’s action page.