Democracy Vouchers

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Editor Cox asks me about Democracy Vouchers. They’re a Seattle thing. Think of them as $25 coupons. If you’re a registered voter in Seattle you get four per election cycle. You can’t sell them, redeem them, or buy anything with them. All you can do is give them to a candidate for city office or chuck them in the wastebasket.

Democracy Vouchers were thought up by the goo-goos (“good government” gurus) of the center-left (who are the center-right here). Right off, the plan made a splash in the left-leaning press. Vox titled its cheerleading article in 2018, “Seattle’s radical plan to fight big money in politics: swamp it with little money.” In 2019, presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic senator from New York, offered the Seattle plan as a model for the nation.

Here’s how it works. The program takes $3 million a year from the property tax, or an average $11.50 per property owner. It sends out $100 in vouchers to 470,000 voters. The vouchers can be cashed by approved municipal candidates. To qualify for vouchers, candidates must first raise at least $10 in real money from each of 150 voters. Voucher candidates also have to agree to accept no more than $250 in real money from any voter, which is half the limit for nonvoucher candidates. They cannot spend more than $75,000 in the primary contest and the same in the general, but they are released from these caps if an independent entity spends more than $75,000 supporting an opponent.

You can’t sell them, redeem them, or buy anything with them. All you can do is give them to a candidate for city office or chuck them in the wastebasket.


A libertarian is not going to like this program. It takes tax money from people who own property and gives it indirectly to people running for office, many of them dingbats. But it is one thing to reject a program as incompatible with your political beliefs and another to demonstrate that it is unconstitutional. Other campaign-finance regimes have been struck down in the courts, in whole or part, because they amount to government penalties for speech, or because they restrict what an individual can spend on his own speech. The Democracy Voucher program was designed to get around those objections.

Seattle created Democracy Vouchers by voter initiative in 2015. Soon after, the plan was challenged in Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon v. City of Seattle, a lawsuit by an apartment owner and a homeowner. They were represented by a libertarian law group, the Pacific Legal Foundation of Sacramento, California. Pacific Legal’s argument was that the government was forcing individuals to pay for other people’s political contributions — and, in the Seattle context, forcing landlords to pay for tenants’ political contributions. “It thus forces landlords to fund the speech of the very interest group that they often oppose before the city council,” the lawyers said. This was true. At the time the legal complaint was filed, a big share of the Democracy Vouchers was going to a political candidate associated with the Tenants’ Union, an organization that called for rent control.

As a political argument against Democracy Vouchers, I like it. As a legal argument, it didn’t fly.

The opponents’ case was based on the US Supreme Court decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. That was about public employee union dues being used for political causes. The employees who sued objected to being forced by their employer, the government, to fund the political causes of a union. And the Supreme Court agreed with them. In the Seattle case, the Pacific Legal Foundation argued that the ruling on union dues applies to Democracy Vouchers. “The government cannot force taxpayers to front the cash for someone else’s campaign contributions,” it said.

It is one thing to reject a program as incompatible with your political beliefs and another to demonstrate that it is unconstitutional.


But the cases are not the same. In Janus, all the payments went to one political contributor, the union. “Unlike the employees in Janus,” wrote Justice (now Chief Justice) Steven González for the Washington Supreme Court, “Elster and Pynchon cannot show the tax individually associated them with any [particular] message conveyed by the Democracy Voucher Program . . . The decision of who receives vouchers is left to the individual municipal resident and is not dictated by the city . . . 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.”

In other words, the program pays for all kinds of messages, none of them chosen by the government. It’s like taxing you to fund C-SPAN, or a public auditorium available for hire. Or the Voter’s Pamphlet, which is full of ridiculous opinions. If you’re a libertarian, you still won’t like Democracy Vouchers, but it is weak to claim that the program amounts to “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” as forbidden by the First Amendment.

Libertarians and conservatives have long championed school vouchers. With them, all taxpayers are forced to pay into a plan under which vouchers are sent to all parents (a smaller group), to pay tuition at the schools of their choice. If you think Democracy Vouchers are unconstitutional, are school vouchers also unconstitutional? Of course, I could put the same question to left-liberals: if you hate the idea of school vouchers so much — and the liberals have made school vouchers illegal in Washington — why do you favor political-contribution vouchers?

An honest answer would be that Right and Left each prefer the voucher plan that serves their political objectives. School vouchers serve different objectives from those of Democracy Vouchers. But the mechanism is the same.

Under Democracy Vouchers, giving $100 to a candidate costs you nothing. Still, more than 9 out of 10 citizens didn’t bother to make a costless contribution.


A study about the effect of Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers was published in 2020 by the Fels Institute of Government, the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in public policy. There was also a report by Berk Consulting, Seattle. I assume the consultants were hired by the city, so take that into account. Still, the facts are what they are. The demographics, for example. “Voucher users,” write the Berk consultants, “were disproportionately white, older, ideologically liberal and politically engaged.”

Seattle’s population is 67% white; of the citizens who turned in Democracy Vouchers in 2019, 83% were white. (White liberals! Our ruling class.) The city is 17% Asian; the voucher group, 7% Asian. The population is 6% black; the voucher group, 2% black. One of the avowed purposes of the program was to “diversify” political participation, which it apparently did not. It didn’t “diversify” the mix of candidates, and didn’t need to. Right now, our two candidates for mayor are a Latino woman and a half-black and half-Asian man. One of them will replace the current mayor, a gay white woman.

Democracy Vouchers did increase the share of the population contributing to political campaigns — from 0.5% to 8%. That was a slam dunk: under Democracy Vouchers, giving $100 to a candidate costs you nothing. Still, more than nine out of 10 citizens in 2019 didn’t bother to make a costless contribution.

For politicians, the downside of Democracy Vouchers is that the spending limits are too tight for a big campaign. Seattle’s Marxist city councilwoman, Kshama Sawant, refuses to use Democracy Vouchers. She has a network of socialist checkwriters from places like Cambridge, Massachusetts and Oakland, California, and does not want to give it up. Right now, she is fighting a recall campaign and has raised $683,000, of which only 44% is from Seattle.

The word from political professionals is that Democracy Vouchers haven’t amounted to a whole lot, but I think it’s too early to say. The city is in its third election under the system, and it may be having more of an effect this time. I’m thinking of the race for the Seattle City Council underway now.

Seattle’s Marxist city councilwoman refuses to use Democracy Vouchers. She has a nationwide network of socialist checkwriters and does not want to give it up.


One of the two candidates who survived the primary, Nikkita Oliver, is of the woke Left. She believes it is “cruel and inhumane” for the city to clear out the squatter encampments in public parks. (One of these encampments is a half mile from my house, and has ten motor homes and more than a dozen tents along a beautiful lake protected by “No Parking 2 to 6 a.m.” signs.) She believes that the city should create a fund of tax money “to support people who use the parks for housing, enabling the parks to help sustainably and humanely address the needs of unsheltered people while expanding green spaces in the city and absorbing unneeded roadways.” She calls for massive spending on public housing, “prioritizing housing for Seattle’s Black Trans & Queer communities.”

You can read her platform here.

Her opponent, Sara Nelson, is what would be considered a liberal in most parts of America. I assume she is a Democrat; in Seattle, just about everyone is. She is for the city providing housing for the people camping in parks, and I’m not — I’d just kick them out — but she is for shutting down the encampments. She is also co-owner of a business — and not a cupcake shop, but a 100-plus-employee for-profit enterprise, Fremont Brewing, which is right across the street from a nasty little squatter camp.

I recall a comment more than a decade ago by a former mayor of Seattle, Greg Nickels. The trouble with politics in Seattle, he said, is that the only people who run for office are social activists. Sara Nelson is a business owner.

Of course, I’m all for her. But she is not accepting Democracy Vouchers. Nikkita Oliver is.

Can Sara Nelson win? I think so. I hope so. Judging from my neighborhood listserv, a lot of people around me are fed up with the squatter camps, and the squatters’ whining appeal, “Move on to WHERE?” (Maybe to work?)

I pay more than $8,000 in property tax per year. I’m not going to get tied in knots over a program that costs me less than $20.


If Sara Nelson loses, I’ll probably grumble about Democracy Vouchers. But they don’t often all tip to one candidate only, and they have no effect on spending independent of campaigns, which matters in the big contests. People’s right to spend their own money to speak on their own behalf is protected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, a ruling that Democracy Vouchers can’t touch.

So I’m not too worked up about this program. All systems for running for office have rules. In some states, you have to declare your political party when you register to vote, and in other states, such as mine, you don’t. Those are rules internal to a system. But for the government to limit what you can do with your money in the open marketplace is messing with your rights. That’s why I like Citizens United.

Like the landlord who sued over Democracy Vouchers, I don’t enjoy my tax money going to politicians, but here in Seattle my tax money goes to all kinds of places. Some years ago, a man I knew at the city council told me that it appropriated money for nonprofit groups to go to Olympia and lobby the state legislature for grants. The city was funding political lobbying. He was troubled by this, but apparently no one else was. A few years ago, a social entrepreneur in Seattle started a business in rental bicycles by leaving them unguarded in public parks and trusting people not to steal them or chuck them in the ditch. When his business plan didn’t work, he talked the City Council into buying his company. More recently I’ve read that the city spends more than $100 million a year on the homeless. Just the other day, I read a report that some guys camped in one of Seattle’s public parks set their tent on fire while trying to cook methamphetamine. Obviously, this man needs to be helped with more city money . . .

I pay more than $8,000 in property tax per year. I’m not going to get tied in knots over a program that costs me less than $20. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually sign over my Democracy Vouchers to a candidate who gets my hopes up. I might have done it this year, but I’ve already chucked my vouchers into the wastebasket.

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