Seattle’s “democracy voucher” program a confusing waste of money

Seattle is rolling out its new “democracy voucher” program, and apparently it’s leaving residents a little confused. Does it surprise anyone that this bad idea is proving confounding?

Seattle voters passed the tax-dollars-for-campaign-donations program by initiative, so they gave it an affirmative yes. That doesn’t mean they have any idea what the vouchers are when they receive them in the mail. Each voter automatically receives four $25 vouchers that they can sign over to Seattle political candidates, who turn them in to the city for campaign dollars.

But explaining the idea to voters is proving difficult. City Attorney Pete Holmes told Crosscut that the program is “really convoluted” and that he “routinely spends 15-20 minutes just talking people through the process.”

The whole idea behind the program is that candidates will spend less time at fundraisers and more time knocking on doors. That’s because the vouchers give candidates a financial incentive to do so, just as long as they can persuade voters to sign the vouchers over to them. As candidates have discovered, that requires a lot of explanation.

Even candidates using the system question it
That Holmes, the city attorney, is using the democracy voucher program is a bit of surprise. He didn’t even have an opponent for re-election in 2013. As Crosscut notes, “Holmes could easily raise all the money he needed through high profile fundraisers,” and that “No one has declared against Holmes and, barring some extremely high-profile name from jumping in, he’s positioned to walk to an easy re-election.”

The obvious question: is this a wise use of tax dollars? Does the city really need a program that directly funds political campaigns, let alone the campaigns of well-known incumbents? The program’s mom-and-apple-pie focus is on political newcomers, but of course to be legal, the program must be open challengers and incumbents alike.

Even Holmes has his doubts. “It’s an awful lot of process. I also, in my office, see all the needs of the city and think, gosh every spare dollar could go to homelessness and police reform,” he told Crosscut.

Seattle has a growing homelessness problem, deteriorating streets, and other problems. It’s hard to see how subsidizing political campaigns is anywhere near the top of the city’s priorities list.

Let’s not lose sight of the main problem – your tax dollars are spent on campaign speech that you may directly oppose. It’s compelled political speech. And instead of dealing with serious city problems, these tax funds are going for campaign signs, TV ads, and political consultants.

Thankfully, statewide voters rejected this pernicious idea.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.