On Monday, one of the lesser known public bodies in Austin may vote to ask the City Council to tax its citizens and turn the money over to voters in the form of vouchers to contribute to their favorite candidates.
The Charter Review Commission got the idea from Seattle, whose Democracy Voucher program is the only one of its kind in the country. In the last municipal election in November, the program in the Emerald City distributed $1,140,525 to candidates, paid for by a tax levy on property in the city.
Frances McIntyre, with the League of Women Voters, told the commission on Monday, “We believe that this is the time for Austin to join Seattle. The proof is in the pudding and Seattle has proved that it’s yummy and it works.”
Officials in Seattle pronounced the first run of the Democracy Voucher program a success in its goal of democratizing the funding of local races. A closer look at how it actually worked challenges that assessment. On the eve of endorsing such a program for Austin, commission members have so far only been exposed to the success side of the story.
“I have some concerns with this particular system,” commission member Matt Hersh told The Texas Monitor Wednesday. “This is a very, very complex system and I’m concerned. Will the public have enough time to understand it? It’s pretty clear the commission wants to do this.”
Commission member Fred Lewis, an attorney and a campaign finance and ethics activist, has studied the Democracy Voucher program in Seattle. While the commission hasn’t settled on exactly how the plan should be funded, Lewis told The Texas Monitor he strongly supports using taxpayers funds in some form.
“People who oppose this like the current system where big money dominates American politics,” Lewis said. “The American people think the system is corrupt and they’re alienated. This is the chance to bring small-dollar contributors into the system.”
This was the underlying philosophy behind Seattle’s Initiative 122, passed by a wide margin in November 2015. The vote gave the city authority to collect up to $3 million a year (about $12 a year in taxes for every homeowner). The city’s Ethics and Elections Commission would then convert the money into $25 vouchers. Eligible voters could donate as many as four $25 vouchers to any eligible candidate.
Evenly distributed, a $3 million pool can provide 120,000 $25 vouchers to 29.7 percent of the 410,000 registered voters in Seattle. The program works on a first-come-first-served basis, favoring motivated voters and organized candidates.
Months before the vote, the Seattle Times editorial board recognized what might happen. “The vouchers give well-organized candidates, especially incumbents, an advantage. Some members of activist organizations are giddy at the prospect of swooping up as many vouchers as early as possible.”
The ballot issue itself was an example of the editorial board’s worry. Advocates, many of them national opponents of Citizens United, like Common Cause, helped raise nearly $1.4 million to get out the vote. Opponents raised a little more than $46,000.
As Lewis concedes, Democracy Vouchers did not keep big money out of the local Seattle races. And from the final funding results, while there was a significant increase in the number of $25 donations, the vast majority of that donor money went to incumbents and community activists who best understood how the voucher program worked.
City Attorney Pete Holmes was lifted to a third term with $147,125 in taxpayer underwritten vouchers. His challenger, a first-time candidate, did not collect the 400 registered donations necessary to qualify him to receive vouchers.
Teresa Mosqueda, who gave a presentation in support of Democracy Vouchers to the Charter Review Commission in Austin Monday night, is considered the voucher success story of the election. Mosqueda won a first term to the council with 62 percent of the vote and the maximum $300,000 from 12,000 vouchers.
Mosqueda, however, was no political neophyte. The Political and Strategic Campaign Director for the Washington State Labor Council, Mosqueda was the choice of powerful union support and national backing from the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood. She also raised three times as much money outside of the voucher program than her closest challenger.
That challenger, Jon Grant, former president of the Washington Tenants Union, had run for the seat before and was the first to register his campaign and first eligible for the vouchers. He raised his $300,000, at one point boasting that he was helping the homeless to sign up for the voucher program.
By contrast, a true unknown in the race, Hisam Goueli, started late, stumbled to the 400 qualifying contribution signatures and raised just $27,550 in vouchers — too late to do much good. Had he been elected, Goueli would have become the first openly gay Muslim elected to office in the U.S.
“If you don’t have a machine backing you,” he told a Seattle reporter, “it’s very difficult to do.”
The Pacific Legal Foundation in Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle, is challenging the Democracy Voucher program on Constitutional grounds that it forces property owners to support candidates — and political speech — they might not agree with.
Ethan Blevins, the Foundation attorney carrying the case, told The Texas Monitor that Elster v. City of Seattle has added a second complaint that addresses those who live outside the city and are thereby ineligible to take part in the voucher program.
A superior court judge dismissed the lawsuit in November, but Blevins said he is appealing and will continue to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
“There is a fundamental idea here. The Supreme Court has made clear the government can’t force you to support speech you oppose,” Blevins said. “The point that gets overlooked when they say this is no different than any other campaign finance plan is the property tax. It’s compelled speech, a clear violation of speech rights.”
Lewis calls Blevin’s case a “crappy lawsuit.” Lewis isn’t buying the evidence that Democracy Vouchers in Seattle favor incumbents or entrenched interests. He is also not sure if the commission will craft the funding proposal to include a property tax increase.
“We have a lot to work out yet,” said Lewis. “But given the current environment, with the affluent controlling elections in this country, the voucher approach is a very good approach.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected]