But the Seattle outcome may be the most significant: The voucher system will become the first of its kind in the nation, and, Durning believes, in the world. The city plans to pay the $3 million annual cost with a modest increase in property taxes, and the expectation is that the program will broaden the base of political donors to unprecedented levels. Where an average of one to one-and-a-half percent of adults now contribute to campaigns in most cities, the rate in Seattle could jump to 10 or 15 percent, Durning told me. (The catch, of course, is that the money will not be their own.)
Seattle currently had contribution limits in place, but two years ago voters rejected a proposal to implement a generous government matching program. As with other public-financing systems, the aim of the voucher initiative is to force candidates to interact directly with ordinary voters and liberate them from the burden of having to spend half their days “dialing for dollars” or catering to the wealthy donor class at fancy fund-raisers. Even Donald Trump—that populist scourge of Super PACs—might concede that’s a laudable goal. But in practice, publicly financed elections are not always the political utopias that advocates make them out to be.
New York City, for example, enacted a matching-fund program in 1988 in response to a corruption scandal. And while it has been held up as a model by good-government groups for expanding civic participation and small donors, it has done little to disrupt a system dominated by local political clubs, labor unions, and the major parties. The most notable “outsider” to win in New York was the billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who ignored the public-financing system altogether in his three lavishly funded mayoral runs. And a cursory scan of newspaper headlines and courtroom dockets over the last several years will show that political corruption remains alive and well in the five boroughs.
Critics have raised similar concerns about the proposal in Seattle—that its design will benefit incumbents and entrenched political organizations who don’t need any extra boost. The vouchers will be distributed to every voter in January 2017, but the program is only funded so that a maximum of 47,000 residents will be able to cash them in, said Robert Mahon, a former chairman of Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission. “It’s a first-come, first-serve system, which means that if you don’t use your vouchers early, they’ll become worthless when the money runs out,” Mahon said. Or as The Seattle Times wrote in its editorial urging readers to vote down the initiative, “the proposal counts on people not participating.”
And because the vouchers will be sent out a full 10 months before the election, insurgent or outsider candidates will be at a disadvantage, Mahon said. “Very few non-incumbents, or non establishment candidates, have their campaigns geared up or will be in a position to collect vouchers,” Mahon told me. “My fear is that incumbents and those that are backed by significant financial resources are going to be in a position, as the holiday decorations are getting put away, to come in and scoop up those vouchers.”