During the 2017 election cycle, which included races for City Council, school board, and the Mayor, the City of Seattle sent every registered voter—442,316 people in total—four pieces of paper. The papers, called Democracy Vouchers, were each worth $25, paid for by the taxpayers, and were to be used for the sole purpose of making contributions to that year’s active campaigns. This was the trial run for the Democracy Voucher program, born out of a 2015 citizen-led initiative called Honest Elections, which included a suite of other campaign finance reforms policies, including lower contribution caps and new rules about paid signature gathering. The vouchers are paid for by a property tax (Washington state has no income tax and uses property taxes and levies to fund most of its new programs) “amounting to a total of $3 million per year to fund the program for the next 10 years,” according to the city.
Getting big money out of politics—flushing out dark money and overturning Citizens United—has been a major talking point at the national level, though in the current climate meaningful action seems unlikely. In Seattle, voters have taken matters into their own hands, creating an innovative method to help regular folks give real money to campaigns.
It’s a good place for this kind of experiment, too. Despite its reputation as a liberal bastion, Seattle remains a highly divided city, and one where the wealth gap is more apparent than ever. In addition to old money from Microsoft and Boeing, the newfound, though concentrated, wealth being created by companies like Amazon have generated a crisis of affordability. Much of Seattle’s money is concentrated in the hands of just a few people and companies—Paul Allen’s Vulcan, for example—who have, for many years, held massive sway over elections, cutting big checks and ensuring that “business-friendly” policies, like low levels of local regulations, are maintained.