Washington Supreme Court upholds Seattle voucher system
SEATTLE (AP) — The state Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously upheld Seattle’s “democracy vouchers” program, which allows residents to direct taxpayer money to qualifying political candidates.
The libertarian-leaning Pacific Legal Foundation had supported a lawsuit to block the program on behalf of a pair of residents, claiming it would effectively force them to support candidates they might not agree with.
The state’s nine justices ruled that because any candidate can qualify to receive the funds the program is effectively neutral.
Ethan Blevins, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the group will likely petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
The first-in-the-nation program gained national attention earlier this year after it was endorsed by Democratic presidential contender and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as a model for a national campaign funding program.
Currently in its second election cycle after being approved by city voters in 2015, the program mails every voter four $25 “democracy vouchers” that they can give to city council or city attorney candidates. The vouchers are funded by a property tax.
Supporters say it has drawn more diverse candidates into races, and gives both incumbents and upstarts a financial incentive to appeal directly to voters, rather than fundraising from wealthy donors.
Blevins said before the ruling that forcing the two homeowners named in the suit to fund the vouchers through their property taxes would force them to support candidates with whom they might not agree. The program is effectively forcing them to engage in a form of political speech, Blevins said.
Thursday’s opinion, authored by Justice Steven Gonzalez, noted that other neutrally administered campaign funding programs have been approved by the U.S. Supreme Court as a valid method of encouraging public debate and participation.
Data shows the Seattle program has coincided with sharp upticks in engagement by both voters and candidates.
In 2017, the first election it was in effect, three-quarters of the primary candidates for city council applied for the vouchers and nearly half said they would not have run without them, according to a city-commissioned report. The program distributed $1.1 million in the 2017 cycle.
The program also appeared to drive an increase in voter engagement that year. Residents who voted in less than half the time were found to be four times more likely to vote that year if they used their vouchers, according to a University of Washington study.
This year 72 candidates registered for seven city council seats, the most competitive race in more than 15 years. Candidates as of May had taken in about 61,000 vouchers worth $1.5 million.