‘Democracy Vouchers’ Put Free Campaign Cash in the Hands of Voters

Posted on February 7, 2023

PEW / February 7, 2023

Seattle voters are about to get their democracy vouchers for this year’s city council elections: envelopes of $25 gift cards that voters direct to their choice of local political campaigns.

Every February of municipal election years, Seattle voters receive four $25 “democracy vouchers” — blue slips of paper totaling $100 on which voters can write in candidates and direct public funds to those campaigns.

Since Seattle voters approved democracy vouchers in 2015 and the city implemented the program two years later, the taxpayer-funded donations have made elections more competitive, and campaign contributions have come from an increasingly diverse group of voters, said Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which administers the program. Seattleites pay $3 million in property taxes annually to fund the program.

“Elections are supposed to be battles between candidates with different approaches,” Barnett said. “For the longest time, we didn’t have that in Seattle. We had different candidates with different resources at their disposal, and this has changed that.”

Democracy vouchers — also known as democracy dollars in some areas — are aimed at diversifying the pool of local campaign contributors, who tend to be White, older and wealthy. By opening campaign contributions to a broader group of voters, proponents hope to energize local elections, force campaigns to pay attention to more communities and lessen the influence that big-moneyed interests have enjoyed in American politics.

But the program does cost millions and the city must evaluate all its expenditures in light of major policy challenges, including homelessness. The levy for the program must be renewed in the next two years, Barnett said. The Democracy Voucher Program costs the average homeowner about $8 per year.

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