Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

In Win for Public Campaign Financing, State Supreme Court Upholds Seattle's Unique 'Democracy Vouchers'

The Washington State Supreme Court has upheld Seattle's pioneering "democracy vouchers" program, which allows residents to contribute taxpayer money to qualifying political candidates.

Alan Durning holds democracy voucher.
Alan Durning, author of the ballot initiative that created Seattle's voucher system, holds an artist's depiction of a possible design for the vouchers.
(AP/Ted S. Warren)
By Daniel Beekman

The Washington State Supreme Court has upheld Seattle's pioneering "democracy vouchers" program, which allows residents to contribute taxpayer money to qualifying political candidates.

"The Democracy Voucher Program does not alter, abridge, restrict, censor, or burden speech. Nor does it force association between taxpayers and any message conveyed by the program. Thus, the program does not violate First Amendment rights," Justice Steven Gonzalez wrote in a unanimous opinion published Thursday, affirming a 2017 ruling by a King County Superior Court judge.

Under the program approved at the ballot in 2015 and first used in 2017, the city raises $3 million annually in property taxes. Each election cycle, voters receive four $25 vouchers that they can sign over to candidates who abide by certain rules.

"This is a big win for the changing face of political campaigns, opening the playing field to provide more people an opportunity to seek local office," said Dan Nolte, spokesman for the Seattle City Attorney's Office, in a statement. "If other Washington cities were considering a Democracy Voucher program of their own, they'll be aided knowing our state's highest court has just given the green light."

"It's especially heartening when our office is able to successfully defend a program developed and resoundingly approved by Seattle voters," Nolte said.

The city's program is the first of its kind in the country and has garnered significant attention. At least one Democratic presidential hopeful, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, has proposed that the system be used in federal elections.

Dozens of candidates are using the vouchers in this year's crucial Seattle City Council elections, with many contenders relying on the program to fund their campaigns.

Proponents say the vouchers counter big money in politics by involving people who otherwise wouldn't donate and by helping lesser-known candidates compete. Seattle residents spent $1.14 million in vouchers last year.

Two Seattle property owners, Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon, brought a lawsuit against the city last year, claiming the vouchers system was violating their constitutional right to free speech by forcing them -- through their tax dollars -- to support candidates they didn't like.

"Elster and Pynchon argue the Democracy Voucher Program is not viewpoint-neutral because the vouchers will be distributed among qualified municipal candidates unevenly and according to majoritarian preferences," Gonzalez wrote, referring to the plaintiffs.

However, the justice wrote, "Here, the decision of who receives vouchers is left to the individual municipal resident and is not dictated by the city or subject to referendum ... That some candidates will receive more vouchers reflects the inherently majoritarian nature of democracy and elections, not the city's intent to subvert minority views."

Represented by the libertarian-leaning Pacific Legal Foundation, Elster and Pynchon also cited the U.S. Supreme Court's 2018 Janus decision, which said public-sector workers could no longer be required to pay fees to unions for collective bargaining.

"Unlike the employees in Janus, Elster and Pynchon cannot show the tax individually associated them with any message conveyed by the Democracy Voucher Program," Gonzalez wrote.

According to Thursday's opinion, "The government has a legitimate interest in its public financing of elections ... The program's tax directly supports this interest."

In an email, Pacific Legal attorney Ethan Blevins wrote, "The Court's opinion is a blow to the First Amendment, which prohibits government from forcing private individuals to sponsor other people's campaign contributions."

There could be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. "As for next steps, we're considering our options and should know what our plan is soon," Blevins said.

(c)2019 The Seattle Times

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
Special Projects