The most-funded item on Seattle’s November ballot isn’t a candidate. It’s a ballot measure called Honest Elections, and almost all its funding comes from a few East Coast donors.
Under the Honest Elections plan, every voter would be a donor. Before a city election, voters would receive four $25 vouchers in the mail. Voters pick their favorite candidates and mail in their vouchers.
That effort has attracted more than $370,000 in campaign contributions.
Alan Durning, the executive director of the Sightline Institute, said campaign vouchers would be a first in the country.
“The purpose of the ‘democracy voucher’ system is to give every voter in the city a chance to become a political donor,” Durning said.
Seattle’s campaign contributions are currently given by just 1.5 percent of its voters. Other places that offer public funding through grants or tax credits have seen participation rates of 5 percent. Durning’s goal would be to exceed that.
He said he doesn’t foresee a Seattle backlash to the outside funding flowing in. While people and groups outside of Washington have given the bulk of donations to Initiative 122, he said it’s locally designed. He said national groups were attracted to the Seattle effort.
Durning said these groups hope to replicate the vouchers elsewhere if the measure passes.
The initiative goes beyond the vouchers to implement other changes to ethics, transparency and lobbying rules. It would cap campaign contributions and ban city contractors and business partners from donating to campaigns.
Durning said recent donations from the ride-booking company Lyft are an example of the types of contributions that would no longer be permitted.
“In the 2013 cycle, Lyft was lobbying the city to change the taxi rules,” he said. “It was also spreading money around in direct gifts to candidates. One of the provisions in the initiative is to ban contributions from entities that spend large amounts of money on lobbying.”
According to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, Lyft made contributions in 2013 to Mayor Ed Murray, former Mayor Mike McGinn, and council members Richard Conlin and Mike O’Brien.
The initiative would impose a property tax (about $8 per year for the median homeowner) to generate $3 million dollars to fund the vouchers. All voucher donations would be tracked and publicly reported, and backers expect to create an online system for making the donations in addition to the paper one mailed to voters. Durning said their models show that even with the dozens of Seattle candidates in the recent August primary, the voucher funding would have been sufficient.
Opponents say they don’t trust the funding model and the system would be expensive and cumbersome to administer.
Bob Mahon is a former member of Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission. He’s supporting the group “No Elections Vouchers,” which has raised just $780. He said the voucher system would favor political incumbents that get to voters early in the race and well-organized groups that tell their members who to support.
“There’s a danger of these being used to benefit the very forces that the proponents are suggesting would be undermined by this,” Mahon said.
He said Seattle already has clean elections and lower contribution limits than many other cities. He said shrinking the limits further would just drive money into independent expenditures.
“Well-meaning intentions to drive money out have failed,” he said, “and we’ve instead moved it to sources that are less transparent and less accountable.”
Mahon said time can be more valuable than money in local elections because there are only so many mailings people can read. He said instead of seeking vouchers, voters should volunteer on behalf of a campaign.
“That’s ultimately going to be more important to many of these city council candidates, many mayoral candidates, than the cash,” he said.
Supporters of the initiative say a different public financing measure for campaigns failed narrowly in 2013, and they expect the vouchers proposal to be much stronger.