Now more than ever, voters are seeking reforms to ensure a more responsive and accountable government. Thus, it is good news that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear arguments in Elster v. City of Seattle, a challenge to Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program, which was approved by over 60% of city voters in 2015. The program – which went into effect in 2017 – offers any eligible adult city resident four $25 “democracy vouchers” to give to qualified candidates of their choosing.
Seattle’s innovative program loosens the stranglehold that large donors have had over the terms of political debate by giving a more diverse pool of people an opportunity to have their voices heard in politics. The city of Seattle's victory in this case protects campaign finance reform efforts around the country and helps uphold the constitutional principle of self-governance.
The denial of review leaves in place a November 2017 decision by the Washington Superior Court that dismissed the challenge, upholding the city’s public financing program. 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. CLC and Common Cause filed a friend-of-the-court brief on September 20, 2017 in support of the city’s public financing system. CLC and the Brennan Center filed appellate briefs in the state Supreme Court last year and the Court of Appeals in 2018.