Elster v. City of Seattle

Defending Seattle’s democracy voucher program

In 2015, Seattle’s voters passed the Honest Elections Seattle initiative (I-122),  which created an innovative new “democracy voucher” public campaign financing program. Under the democracy voucher program, eligible Seattle residents receive four $25 vouchers that they can use to support the candidates of their choice running for city office. The program was considered successful in its first election (2017). But absentee property owners, represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, challenged the program in Washington state court as supposedly violating their First Amendment rights.

Free Speech For People worked with Demos to jointly present this amicus curiae brief on behalf of the coalition of local and national organizations that helped pass the initiative: Washington CAN!, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, Every Voice, Fuse, LGBTQ Allyship, OneAmerica, the Washington Democracy Hub, Washington Public Interest Research Group, and Win Win Network.

Key facts

Caption Elster v. City of Seattle
Court Washington Supreme Court
Docket No.


Status Victory
Plaintiffs Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon
Defendant City of Seattle







In 2015, Seattle voters enacted a novel democracy voucher program for public campaign financing.  This nationally-recognized public campaign financing system was enacted by voter initiative in 2015 and first used in the city’s 2017 election. Absentee property owners challenged it in state court as violating their First Amendment rights. They lost in trial court and then appealed.

Our amicus brief was filed on behalf of a coalition of local and national organizations that helped pass the initiative. As our brief argues, the democracy voucher program serves important First Amendment interests in strengthening local democracy in Seattle by combating both actual and perceived corruption in Seattle politics; increasing access to public expression and expanding public debate; and advancing the compelling interest in promoting democratic self-government. The democracy voucher program is a home run for both democracy and the First Amendment: it gives more people a political voice and encourages more people to run for office while silencing no one. The brief also presents our new empirical analysis showing that the voucher program helps promote democratic self-government by enabling Seattle candidates to run for office without relying on out-of-town donors.

On July 11, 2019, the Washington Supreme Court upheld the initiative. The U.S. Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs’ petition for a writ of certiorari.

Read more about this case in our blog post when we filed the brief and our announcement after the state supreme court upheld the initiative.

Major case developments and documents


Legal Team

Demos and Free Speech For People serve as counsel for amici. We are grateful to Harry Williams Law of Seattle for assisting with this brief pro bono.

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