How Seattle is trying to combat big money in politics

The city will hand out $100 vouchers for voters to contribute to a local campaign of their choosing. But will that even begin to level the political financial playing field? 

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
In this Nov. 12, 2015 photo, Alan Durning, author of an initiative passed by Seattle voters that created the nation’s first voucher system for campaign contributions, poses for a photo in his office in Seattle while holding an artist's depiction of a possible design for the vouchers. Starting with city council and city attorney elections in 2017, and the mayor’s race in 2021, all registered Seattle voters will receive four $25 coupons which they can sign over to candidates for office that meet certain conditions. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Seattle is embarking on a political experiment that is the first of its kind in the United States.

This month, two thirds of the city’s voters chose to tax themselves $3 million annually, effectively raising $6 million each election cycle, to fund four $25 vouchers that can be put toward candidates running for city attorney, city council, or mayor. Council and attorney elections are in 2017 while the mayor’s race is in 2021.

It’s the first campaign contribution voucher system in the country, and it's part of an effort to counteract big money in politics by persuading ordinary people to engage in their civic duty. While the money wouldn’t come close to covering the cost of vouchers for all registered voters, only 1.5 percent of the city’s voters made contributions to local candidates in 2013.

But for candidates to actually redeem the vouchers, they have to first collect a certain amount of small-dollar donations and must abide by strintgent rules regarding private contribution and spending limits. They must also participate in a minimum of three debates.

"We're very eager to see how it works," Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C., told The Associated Press.

"One of the major problems people have with the political system is that it's financially controlled by too few people. Nothing's going to stop wealthy individuals from making independent expenditures, but those will be less powerful if more people are engaged."

Some restrictions on political donations have been stripped away by the US Supreme Court. The landmark 2010 Citizens United case now allows for organizations such as corporations and unions to spend an unlimited amount of money on elections.

According to David Donnelly, president of Every Voice, which supported the Seattle measure and a similar one in Maine, up to eight states may be considering ballot measures that would institute the matching of small dollar contributions or voucher systems in 2016, including in South Dakota and Washington.

"There are people all over the country that are seeing these examples as beacons of hope to take big money out of politics and engage regular people in elections," Donnelly told The AP. "It's an incredible, democratizing policy."

But not everyone is a fan.

Some critics say incumbents and well-established candidates will benefit most by the early availability of vouchers in the election year, whereas smaller campaigns may not have even have launched yet. They also disagree with the new limits placed on how much city contractors can donate to candidates, arguing that even more money will be pushed into independent expenditures, therefore exacerbating the pervasiveness of “dark money” in elections.

The new law also has a so-called “escape clause,” whereby candidates who are targeted by independent expenditure campaigns can petition to nullify their spending limits so they can raise and spend more private money.

In 2012, the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews wrote about Yale law professors Ian Ayres and Bruce Ackerman and their 2004 book “Voting with Dollars,” which proposed making campaign contributions anonymous like votes are:

Specifically, they would set up a public financing system in which all eligible voters have a $50 voucher that they can donate to a campaign of their choosing, but to be eligible for the vouchers, campaigns have to agree to the FEC establishing a blind trust into which all their contributions are placed.

The idea is that quid pro quo only works if legislators know who's paying them. If they don't know to whom they're indebted, no donors can exercise sway. And because most of their donors will be voters donating very small amounts, their self-interest in donation terms is aligned with the desires of the registered voters making the donations.

But the Ackerman-Ayres proposal is eight years old now and, most importantly, was developed before the Citizens United ruling upended the status quo on campaign finance. Ayres tells me he stands by the proposal, but only if it is possible to cap donations.

Campaign vouchers is not a new concept. US Sens. Russell Long of Louisiana and Lee Metcalf of Montana proposed versions of the idea in 1967, but Congress instead chose to let voters donate $1 via their tax forms to a fund that would publicly finance campaigns. But since then, many cities and states have instituted different versions of voluntary public financing, usually in the form of tax rebates.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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