Could Seattle’s new Democracy Voucher program help homeless people direct city policy?
That’s the argument being made by the Jon Grant campaign, which on Tuesday announced it has collected $76,000 worth in vouchers, a total that’s been aided by the campaign’s effort to enroll the homeless in the program.
“Seattle has been particularly cruel to its homeless community members by constantly sweeping encampments. If the homeless were brought into the political process and could access democracy vouchers to fund candidates who fight for their interests Seattle might start taking a more compassionate approach,” Grant said in a press release.
It’s a provocative idea. As we reported last fall, the homeless have a keen interest in public policy, as elected officials debate their rights. However, they face serious barriers to participating in the political process.
Linda Mitchell, spokesperson for Mary’s Place, a shelter for women, children, and families, listed for us last October many barriers to voting aside from not having an address. In addition to their immigration and refugee status (the shelter has several such families, who don’t always know if they can vote), the homeless may not know if it’s possible to vote with a criminal record (it is); how to register or why it’s important; whether they’re a resident of Washington; and what issues are at stake on the ballot.
The people experiencing these barriers, of course, have other things on their minds, Mitchell said. “When you’re struggling to find housing and you’re living in a shelter situation, figuring out where to find a voter-registration form is probably not the highest priority of the day,” she says.
But these are barriers to simply casting a ballot. In almost any scenario, the idea of a homeless person donating money to a campaign is completely out of the question. However, with Democracy Vouchers, it becomes plausible. Approved by voters in 2015, the Voucher program is funded by a small property tax levy. Every Seattle resident who is 18 or older and a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or permanent resident can apply to receive the vouchers, which come in the form of four $25 coupons they can give to qualified candidates. The idea behind the program is to take power away from wealthy political donors by creating a pathway for candidates to run entirely on the contributions from those who are too poor to make campaign contributions. By signing up Seattle’s homeless, Grant is simply taking the program to its logical extreme.
John Wyble, Grant’s campaign manager, says it’s unclear how many Democracy Vouchers the campaign has received from homeless people, but says they have come in. Wyble says the idea of signing people in encampments up for the program came to him as Grant “was going through there and saw there was an opportunity to engage people in the process that hadn’t been there before.”
Asked whether the campaign was concerned this could be seen as exploiting the homeless for their vouchers, Wyble says Grant has been “pretty embedded” at the encampments—i.e., he hasn’t just swooped down for the vouchers— and that anyway the process of getting people signed up for the vouchers and then collecting them would not an efficient one.
“That would be a hard way to collect vouchers. Even if you were cynical, saying, ‘I need to get the most vouchers I can,’ homeless vouchers would not be my first choice,” he says.
Grant was one of the first candidates to qualify for the voucher program. It seems to be paying off; he says he’s raised more in two months than he did during his entire campaign last year, in which he was defeated by Tim Burgess. His campaign says 82 percent of his contributions are through Democracy Vouchers.
Burgess is not running for re-election, and the open seat has drawn a strong slate of candidates. Along with Grant, labor activist Teresa Mosqueda and Sheley Seacrest of the NAACP are also among the 10 candidates running for the seat.