What Can and Can’t Go Wrong With Democracy Vouchers

No, incumbents don’t get a head start.

After Seattle voters approved publicly financing elections in 2015, Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett worried that the new program would stretch the city’s campaign season, so that voters would get inundated with campaign materials right after New Year’s.

The program works like this: during every municipal election, every voter (and some non-voter residents) in Seattle gets four $25 coupons called “Democracy Vouchers.” They can give those vouchers to any candidate they want, who must then turn in the vouchers to the SEEC in order to redeem them for actual cash from taxpayers. The idea is to counterbalance the influence of large political donors by increasing the number of small political donors, so that elected leaders have an incentive to be more responsive to the 99 percent.

Last week, the SEEC mailed out its first-ever batch of vouchers, to be used in this fall’s elections. Barnett had been worried that the vouchers could motivate candidates to start campaigning early to try and gobble them up. “One of my concerns going in was we’d be deluged with candidates on January 1, 2017,” he says. “But it hasn’t happened. We have not seen the flood of candidates early on.” So far, only three candidates have registered for the program: City Attorney incumbent Pete Holmes and position 8 contenders Jon Grant and Mac McGregor (aka “the Gender Sensei”). Councilmember M. Lorena González says she will also use the vouchers in her reelection campaign, but hasn’t started collecting them yet. The vouchers will not be available for the mayor’s race this year.

The Seattle Times editorial board, an opponent of the program, has done its best to discredit it. In their recommendation against the program when it was on the ballot in 2015, the board wrote that incumbents would get to start collecting vouchers months before challengers. Then, at the end of December, the Times editorial board acknowledged the arrival of vouchers in voters’ mailboxes, writing, “It will probably be a while before voters can even spend the $25 vouchers.”

The former assertion and the latter speculation are both false. In fact, Barnett says, any putative candidate can start collecting vouchers starting on January 1, so long as the candidate pledges to the SEEC their intention of formally registering as a candidate and gathering enough small donations to qualify for the program. All three of the candidates who’ve registered for the program have already begun soliciting vouchers from constituents.

Times naysaying aside, though, there are plenty of reasonable questions of how vouchers will be used, or abused, in their first year. Seattle Weekly quickly came up with various ways to possibly troll the program.

First, suppose I’m a spoiler candidate who wants to suck away vouchers from a grassroots candidate so their well-funded opponent wins. I register with the SEEC my intention to participate in the vouchers program. I start soliciting vouchers from likely voucher donors. I light those vouchers on fire so no one can cash them in. Then I go home and eat a sandwich, content in the knowledge that I’ve slashed and burned some money that could have otherwise gone to the grassroots candidate.

Could this work?

Yes, but no, says Barnett. “If you track your voucher and find that it is not submitted,” Barnett says, “you can request a replacement voucher from us.” If a candidate to whom you gave your vouchers fails to qualify for the program by July 2 or subsequently withdraws or gets removed from the race, and if they never redeemed the vouchers they collected from you, you can call the SEEC at 206-727-8855 to see about replacements.

OK, how about this: could a real candidate try the same slash-and-burn trick by collecting more vouchers than they’re allowed to spend?

Nope. “[T]he value of unredeemed Vouchers on hand” is included in the spending limits imposed by participation in the voucher program ($75,000 per election for city attorney and district council seats; $150,000 for at-large city council seats). Once a candidate gets a voucher signed to them, it counts toward the limited total amount of money they’re allowed to raise.

In short, think of the vouchers like writing a check: if you sign your vouchers to a candidate who can’t or doesn’t cash it, you may be able to void the original vouchers and get new ones. But once a candidate cashes that voucher, it becomes their money.

Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute, who spent months helping to draft the program, says he’s not worried about such tactics. There are so many vouchers in Seattle that trying to limit their availability to other candidates would be like “trying to bail out the ocean,” he says.

One last concern: bundling. That term describes the acivity of a third party who collects political donations from various sources, then bundles them together before delivering them to a candidate. Bundling is bad because it can easily turn into implicit bribery, with the third party using their control over the donations to influence the candidate.

In their more recent editorial, the Times board accurately reports that Barnett and the SEEC are waiting for advice, expected by the end of the month, from the state Public Disclosure Commission on whether bundling laws apply to vouchers. Here’s the pickle: on the one hand, the vouchers are political donations and could be used to influence candidates. On the other hand, the only way to turn vouchers into spendable money is by redeeming them with the SEEC, which will track and publish the names of who gave vouchers to which candidate. Because the vouchers are already tracked in a way that cash donations aren’t, it’s not clear whether bundling laws apply.