Innovative Public Financing System has Broadened Political Engagement for Seattle Residents

Seattle Space Needle

In November 2015, over sixty percent of Seattle voters approved I-122, known as the Honest Elections Seattle Initiative, a comprehensive set of reforms intended to reshape the campaign process for local office. Among its changes to Seattle’s election code, I-122 reduced the limit on contributions to city candidates, introduced “pay-to-play” rules for major city contractors and businesses employing lobbyists, and instituted a three-year “revolving door” restriction on former elected officials and their top staff serving as paid lobbyists.

The centerpiece of I-122, however, is the Democracy Voucher Program. This first-in-the-nation system of public campaign financing gives every eligible Seattle resident the opportunity to become involved in local campaigns by making a contribution to their preferred candidates. Under the program, Seattle offers to any adult city resident who is a U.S. citizen or green-card holder $100 in Democracy Vouchers to assign, separately or in combination, to qualified candidates of their choosing.

To qualify for voucher funds, candidates must first demonstrate meaningful grassroots support in the city and adhere to program-specific rules on fundraising and spending throughout their campaigns. The program is funded through a modest levy on local property owners that will reportedly cost the average homeowner in Seattle about $11.50 per year. With this innovative public funding mechanism, Seattle aims to broaden political engagement by “giving more people an opportunity to have their voices heard in our democracy.”

Now, in the middle of the first municipal election since Seattle voters approved I-122, the voucher program is facing legal challenge. In Elster v. City of Seattle, two city property owners seek to invalidate Seattle’s innovative public funding system on the theory that it violates their First Amendment rights by requiring them to subsidize political speech they do not support. The thrust of their argument is that the program “disfavors minority viewpoints”—chiefly the “viewpoint” of property owners— because voucher funds are assigned at the “majoritarian” discretion of city residents who supposedly will support different candidates than the property owners shouldering the program’s cost.

There is considerable irony in the plaintiffs’ claim that the voucher program “disfavors minority viewpoints,” considering the demographically homogenous profile of most donors to privately financed campaigns. In 2014, less than 1% of Washington’s adult population made a contribution to a candidate for the state legislature. Those who did contribute generally came from neighborhoods with higher incomes and smaller nonwhite populations than the statewide average. More crucially, though, the plaintiffs’ argument takes a cramped view of the First Amendment that overlooks its overarching constitutional role: to ensure meaningful self-governance through the robust exchange of ideas and information among all citizens.

In a representative democracy, the principle of self-governance carries little weight if the voices of most citizens are absent from the collective electoral discussion. Indeed, effective democracy depends on widespread participation in the interchange of political ideas in order for voters to make well-founded choices on Election Day. Seattle’s voucher program—like other efforts to publicly finance campaigns—works to fulfill the constitutional promise of meaningful self-governance by fostering citizen involvement throughout the election cycle.

Over forty years ago, in Buckley v. Valeo, the U.S. Supreme Court unequivocally endorsed exactly this view of public campaign financing. As the Buckley court recognized in upholding the presidential public financing system, public funding does not “abridge, restrict, or censor speech,” but instead “use[s] public money to facilitate and enlarge public discussion and participation in the electoral process, goals vital to a self-governing people.” The court also extolled public financing as a way to check “the deleterious influence of large contributions on our political process.” In the decades since Buckley, courts have continued to uphold public financing as a means to facilitate communication by candidates with voters, reduce corruption, and augment political discourse.

Research findings substantiate that existing public financing programs have boosted political engagement among a larger and more demographically representative portion of the electorate. After New York City introduced a 6-to-1 public funds match for each of the first $175 contributed to participating candidates from city residents, a study of the city’s public financing program found that 89% of the city’s census block groups had at least one donor of $175 or less to a city candidate in 2009. Meanwhile, individual contributions of $175 or less to candidates for the New York State Assembly, which are not matched with public funds, were made from only 30% of New York City’s census-block groups in 2010. Moreover, the study revealed the New York City census-block groups with at least one donor of $175 or less to a city candidate generally were less affluent and more racially diverse than census-block groups with at least one donor of $1,000 or more.

Available data from Seattle show that the Democracy Voucher Program has already spurred impressive levels of local engagement. Since the program’s rollout in January, Seattle residents have collectively assigned over 34,000 Democracy Vouchers valued at nearly $865,000 to qualified candidates. In the race for at-large City Council Position 8, over 7,000 Seattle residents have assigned Democracy Vouchers to candidates for the seat. This figure is more than double the total number of contributors to candidates for Council Position 8 in the 2015 election cycle—3,009 total contributors—before the voucher program was introduced. With more than a month remaining before the general election, these figures are likely to continue to rise.

If successful, the plaintiffs’ arguments in Elster v. City of Seattle would undermine state and local efforts to bolster democratic participation through innovative public financing systems, like Seattle’s, that shift the focus of campaigns away from wealthy interests and back toward the population at large. This would be a blow not only to campaign finance reform but also to the constitutional principle of self-governance. 

Austin works with CLC's State & Local Reform Program on efforts to improve campaign finance regulation and electoral integrity around the country.