A lawsuit was filed against the city of Seattle Wednesday, claiming the city's voter-approved democracy voucher program violates the First Amendment. The suit claims property owners are paying for it through higher taxes then forcing those people to subsidize political campaigns.
Voters approved a campaign finance initiative in 2015 to fund the voucher program through a property tax increase—an estimated $11.50 per year for the average homeowner, according to the city.
Registered voters and Seattle residents eligible to apply for the vouchers received four $25 vouchers in the mail, totaling $100. The vouchers can't be transferred. If a resident doesn't use it, they lose it.
In the program’s first year, the vouchers can only be used for the two at large Seattle council races and the city attorney’s race. The program will apply to the mayoral race in 2021, but not this year.
More than $200,000 worth of vouchers have been raised so far by candidates who have officially qualified for the program. Position 8 council candidate Jon Grant currently leads with more than $129,000 in vouchers. Opponent Teresa Mosqueda who has raised more than $61,000 in vouchers.
City Attorney Pete Holmes has raised nearly $40,000 in his race. A handful of other candidates have applied for the program but are still in the process of qualifying.
The lawsuit, filed by Pacific Legal Foundation, represents two property owners.
“The so-called ‘democracy vouchers’ could not be more undemocratic or unconstitutional,” PLF attorney Ethan Blevins said in a statement “First Amendment rights include both the right to speak and the right not to speak. You can’t be forced to engage in political expression or advocacy that is contrary to your convictions."
Blevins specifically targets Grant, a purported activist in support of rental tenants. Blevins claims rental property owners are forced to help fund a politician who would go against property owners' interests. He also says incumbents and those with better name recognition will benefit.
“The democracy voucher program remains in effect, and the Commission will continue to process vouchers it receives. We look forwarding to defending the program in court," the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission said in response to the lawsuit.
KING 5's Natalie Brand contributed to this report.