Free Speech For People and Demos filed an amicus brief in the Washington Supreme Court in the case of Elster v. City of Seattle. Our brief helps defend the city against a constitutional challenge to Seattle’s “democracy voucher” program, a nationally-recognized public campaign financing system enacted by voter initiative in 2015 and first used in the city’s 2017 election. Our brief was filed on behalf of a 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, the Washington Public Interest Research Group, and Win Win Network.
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 homerun 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 democracy voucher program helps expand political equality by allowing individuals who are otherwise excluded from privately-financed campaign finance systems to participate as campaign donors. Before the voucher program, the neighborhoods that gave the most money to Seattle candidates were disproportionately wealthy and white, with high percentages of waterfront and view homes. That’s consistent with research demonstrating that private political donors are both wealthier and whiter than the population as a whole. Small donor empowerment programs, like Seattle’s, counter such trends and advance racial equity. Our brief shows that the people brought into the process through democracy vouchers were more reflective of Seattle’s population in terms of age, race, gender, wealth, and neighborhood than individuals who donated to mayoral candidates, who were not eligible to receive voucher contributions in 2017. And just as the voucher program expands and diversifies the set of people contributing to Seattle campaigns, it also expands and diversifies the pool of candidates for office.
Another key benefit of the voucher program is that it helps promote democratic self-government by enabling Seattle candidates to run for office without relying on out-of-town donors. As our recently-released empirical analysis shows, Seattle candidates have historically relied on donors in affluent suburbs (often with less diverse populations than Seattle), and other states, such as California, for 20-35% of campaign funds. But people who do not live in Seattle, but engage with it primarily as commuting workers, amenity visitors, or absentee property owners, will naturally have different priorities than people who live in the city. Candidate reliance on non-constituent funders can undermine democratic self-government—and promoting increased reliance on constituents helps strengthen democratic self-government.
Our analysis shows that Seattle’s 2017 general election city council candidates, all of whom participated in the voucher program, raised much more of their funds from constituents than candidates for those seats (in some cases the same person) had raised just two years earlier. In total, the percentage of funds raised from Seattle residents in these races went from 76% in 2015 to 93% in 2017. In contrast, candidates who did not use vouchers—because they chose not to participate in the program, or ran in the non-voucher-eligible mayoral race—relied more on non-constituent donors, at rates similar to past elections. By facilitating candidates’ reliance on actual constituents, the democracy voucher program promotes democratic self-government.
Read our amicus brief in Elster v. City of Seattle.
Learn more at our Elster v. City of Seattle case page.
We are grateful to Harry Williams for assisting with this brief pro bono.