The idea of taxpayers funding state or local election campaigns is not something we have embraced. The various plans that have been floated, and the few that have been tried, seem to put a financial burden on the public while not doing much to improve the way political campaigns are run.
Nevertheless, the experiment in Seattle with its “democracy vouchers” is worth monitoring. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out and whether it encourages more people to run for office, whether it levels the playing field for candidates who have modest personal wealth and if it ultimately makes for government that better serves the people.
To this point, Seattle has a lot of candidates running for its City Council. Forty-two of the 55 candidates for the Council’s seven district seats have signed up and together have collected nearly $1.6 million in vouchers. The program was approved in 2015 and began in 2017. The money for the program is collected through a local property-tax levy that raises $3 million annually.
Here’s now the system works: The $25 taxpayer-funded democracy vouchers are mailed in February to registered voters and other eligible residents. Candidates for Council reach out to voters asking for their support and their $25 voucher.
“The program, unlike any other in the country, is meant to involve more people in the electoral process, help grass roots candidates compete and encourage them to interact with regular voters rather than dialing for dollars from wealthy donors. Participating candidates must abide by special spending and contribution limits,” wrote Seattle Times reporter Daniel Beekman.
More than 30 candidates have already gathered at least $20,000 in vouchers, and they’re interacting with voters in various ways, Beekman wrote.
We see this as the most positive aspect of this experiment. It forces candidates to speak one-on-one with regular constituents — not just wealthy donors — in order to get obtain their $25 voucher. In doing so, most of them likely hear concerns from the voters, which gives them a better sense of the problems in their communities.
“I never lead with the vouchers,” said candidate Shaun Scott. “I try to lead with policy stuff. I try to lead with the fact that we need more affordable housing … We haven’t seen enough public investment in housing.”
Still, it’s difficult to embrace a property tax — or a tax of any kind — for the sole purpose of funding political campaigns. It feels as if the government should not be involved.
Again, Seattle might well prove us wrong with this grand social-political experiment. Seeing how it all shakes out, the good and the bad, could be revealing about participation in local election.
It’s well worth monitoring.