Seattle's Experiment With Campaign Funding

City residents approved a public-financing program in which voters will get $100 worth of election vouchers—the first of its kind in the nation.

Ted S. Warren / AP

When people talk up the idea of the public financing of elections, they are usually referring to a system that goes something like this: Candidates must first raise money from individuals, and then the government will chip in matching funds or a pre-set amount that campaigns can spend on their race.

In Seattle, however, voters just approved a system that flips that approach on its head. Starting in 2017, city residents will be able to contribute to local candidates without spending a dime of their own money. Instead, the government will send each registered voter four $25 vouchers that they can give to candidates of their choice. No cutting a check. No minimum contribution. Candidates can opt out, but those who participate will have to abide by strict limits on spending and on receiving private donations.

“The promise of vouchers is turning every single voter in the city into a donor,” said Alan Durning, the executive director of the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank and advocacy group that pushed for the new program.

The Seattle ballot initiative, which won with more than 60 percent of the vote, was one of three victories for major election-reform groups last Tuesday. In Maine, voters approved fixes on disclosure requirements and penalties in the state’s public-financing system after court decisions like Citizens United had weakened the program. And in Ohio, an anti-gerrymandering proposal that sets up a bipartisan redistricting commission for state legislative races passed in a landslide.

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.”

“That’s one of the ironies in all of this,” he added. “The way it’s set up is it benefits people who don’t need it. But unfortunately, everybody’s paying for it.”

Durning dismissed these and other counter-arguments as “preposterous fear-mongering.” Even if a groundswell of Seattle voters chose to use their vouchers—10 percent to 15 percent, by his projection—it would still not come close to overwhelming the system. “It will be an enormous victory, but we will not get to 100 percent, and there will not be a mad rush,” he told me. “All the way to Election Day the overwhelming majority of vouchers will still be available.”

The new law was designed based on intense research into donor patterns “and rigorous stress-testing,” he said, and it also enables the election commission to tweak it in future years. Durning also noted that the system was “not designed to level the playing field for challengers.” “It is to change the game for candidates, whether they’re incumbents or challengers,” he said, “so that they spend their time talking to ordinary voters rather than talking to the donor class.”

Another undercurrent in the Seattle debate was the sense that reformers pushed for the voucher system not so much because the city needed it but because of its reputation as a progressive bastion and “a pretty easy place to try out new things,” as Mahon put it. (Seattle became the first U.S. city to approve a $15 minimum wage last June.) The city already has a fairly high turnover among elected officials, he noted, and its city council has long been diverse. Advocates disputed the notion that Seattle wouldn’t still benefit from a voucher system, but with campaign-finance efforts stalled on the federal level, they’re looking for any place where they can demonstrate that their ideas can work. “I think we’re in a laboratory-of-the-states moment,” said Scott Swenson, a national spokesman for Common Cause.

In an election that turned on the question of money in politics, advocacy groups from around the country poured cash into the campaign and easily outspent opponents of the voucher system. Durning made no apologies. “National election reformers saw the opportunity to put a win on the boards, and we’re proud to have their help and support,” he told me. “This is the way a lot of big changes happen now in America.”