Six months into his presidency, Americans agree President Trump is not making good on his promise to "drain the swamp" and reduce the power of wealthy campaign donors, special interests and lobbyists. But where the Trump administration is failing, the city of Seattle is succeeding.
Earlier this month Seattle wrapped up its first primary election under the Democracy Voucher Program passed by more than 60% of voters in 2015. In stark contrast to the big-money congressional and presidential elections to which we've all become accustomed, the first-in-the-nation program gives every registered voter four $25 vouchers that they can donate to qualified city candidates of their choice.
Democracy vouchers are proving to be an innovative way to increase the power of everyday voters and make candidates more focused on the needs of all their constituents rather than just the small group of wealthy donors who traditionally fund campaigns. Every Voice's Nick Nyhart summarized Seattle's experience well when he said, "This is a complete reimagining of politics as usual, and it’s working to give those without deep pockets a voice.”
Despite the program's early success, it is also facing an unfriendly media environment as one former candidate openly critiques it and as another candidate is being investigated for possibly committing fraud to qualify for the program. It's important that advocates are trumpeting the success story to both build public support in Seattle as well as in other places looking to follow Seattle's lead.
To that end, the Honest Elections Seattle coalition released the following statement emphasizing the program's success in increasing democratic participation and giving traditionally-ignored issues like homelessness and sky-rocketing rent greater attention than we see when wealthy developers bankroll candidates' campaigns.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 17, 2017
Small Donor Participation in Seattle Primary Election Reaches Historic High
Democracy Vouchers elevate the voices of grassroots candidates and everyday people
SEATTLE -- Seattle’s new Democracy Voucher program saw its first round of elections with the August 1st primary. The landmark program, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2015, is designed to limit the influence of big money in politics and empower small donors. Thousands of Seattle residents redeemed their vouchers and donated to a candidate for the first time.
“Although I have been a consistent voter for over 40 years, I have never donated to a political candidate until this year,” says Lynn Sereda, a Seattle resident. “I am of limited income and it irritates me that the two major parties always have fundraisers, like $5,000 a plate dinners, that average people can't afford! The Democracy Voucher program is one of the best things I have ever seen enacted in Seattle. Hopefully this will encourage more people to run so we have greater choices when it comes to local elections. I felt empowered using my vouchers.”
The outcome of the City Council pos. 8 race clearly shows the impact of the Democracy Voucher program. Teresa Mosqueda and Jon Grant both raised most of their campaign’s resources from vouchers and made it through the primary. Their success was due in part to how the Democracy Voucher program transformed typical campaign strategy. Through the program’s qualification process, both candidates were encouraged to engage with everyday people early on, instead of focusing their energy on raising private contributions from wealthy donors and big moneyed interests that have historically dominated Seattle elections. Candidates must also agree to strict fundraising caps and to not accept private donations over $250.
While the voucher program is proving successful, the Honest Elections Seattle coalition is disappointed to learn of the recent allegations that a candidate running for City Council pos. 8 attempted to defraud the program. Whether these allegations prove true or false, the fact that they came to light promptly and are under investigation is proof that the Democracy Voucher program is well designed with safeguards from potential abuse. The qualification process, requiring at-large City Council candidates to collect 400 signatures and small contributions, was intended to screen out candidates unable to generate adequate public support. The transparency of both the signature gathering and voucher assignment process make cheating extremely unlikely and a violation of Seattle’s strict election laws.
Seattle saw a record number of small donors supporting the candidates of their choice -- this boost is due to the Democracy Voucher program and is providing an important check on big money’s typical influence. In the last comparable full election cycle, the 2013 candidates for mayor, attorney, and four city council seats received donations from 8,450 Seattle residents. In the 2017 primary alone, more than 8,000 Seattleites made small donations with their vouchers. This number is even more notable when considering that mayoral candidates, a higher-profile race, are not included in the first year of the voucher program.
“In Seattle, we’re feeling the influence of big corporate money at the ballot and at home. As rent and the cost of living skyrocket, it’s more important than ever for the average Seattleite to be able to participate in local politics,” says Cara Bilodeau, program director at Win/Win Action and member of Honest Elections Seattle, the coalition behind Initiative 122. “Many people can’t afford to donate to the candidates who will actually represent them. When their candidates aren’t given a shot, those people lose out.”
Jon Grant is one of those candidates, whose grassroots organizing efforts were strengthened by the program. Grant spent much of his time engaging low-income people and people experiencing homelessness by visiting tent cities and subsidized housing. The Democracy Vouchers he received made up more than 90 percent of his campaign donations.
Teresa Mosqueda, the current director of the Washington State Labor Council, also concentrated on talking to everyday people. After getting off of work, she spent her time knocking on doors and collecting Democracy Vouchers, raising more than $100,000 in the process. She says that the Democracy Voucher program “[made] it possible for me to run for office.”
“Big money doesn’t belong in Seattle politics,” says Cindy Black, executive director of the campaign-finance reform nonprofit Fix Democracy First. “Citizens United allows tremendous amounts of dark money to flood into our elections. The average Seattleite can’t compete. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to function. Seattle’s new Democracy Voucher program is a first step.” Fix Democracy First is a partner of the Honest Elections Seattle coalition.
The Democracy Voucher program, though new, is a powerful step in the right direction. The first of its kind in the nation, it is a bold experiment and worth our support as it grows and evolves. The Honest Elections Seattle coalition is committed to continue working with the SEEC and City Council to improve the program moving forward. This year’s primary election results made it clear that Democracy Vouchers are already changing the game.
Honest Elections Seattle is a coalition of individuals and community organizations working together to encourage a more diverse pool of candidates for elected office and ensure everyone has the opportunity to have his or her voice heard, not just the wealthy and powerful. Learn more about Honest Elections Seattle at www.honestelectionsseattle.org.
Coalition Contact Info:
Press inquiries please contact Spencer Olson
Cell phone: 253-691-4206