Seattle's 'Honest Elections' initiative wins handily

The first batch of votes counted shows Seattle voters overwhelmingly in favor of I-122, a groundbreaking campaign reform proposal aimed at boosting ordinary voters' participation in funding city elections, as well as leveling the playing field for candidates, according to supporters.

In votes counted by Tuesday night, I-122 led with 60 percent of the votes -- 53,157 to 34,956.

The initiative would tighten campaign finance restrictions in Seattle, and also create a first of its kind system in which registered voters can receive up to $100 of "democracy vouchers" to support the candidate of their choice.

"Seattle voters won big tonight," read a statement from the campaign. "Seattle leads the nation, first on $15/hour and now on campaign finance reform.  We look forward to seeing more cities and states implementing their own local solutions to the problem of big money in politics."

While administrative details will still have to be worked out through the Seattle Ethics and Elections Committee, the initiative says "Participating candidates may continue to raise money from both traditional cash sources and the publicly-funded democracy vouchers as long as they comply with the cash contribution limit of $250 and the spending cap."

Proposed spending caps include "Mayor $400,000 for the primary election, and $800,000 total (for both primary and general election); at-large City Council, $150,000 for the primary election, and $300,000 total; district City Council, $75,000 for the primary election and $150,000 total."

Up to $3 million a year to pay for the vouchers would be raised through a small property tax levy, according to the initiative (about 2.5 cents/$1,000 of assessed value).

The initiative also would also restrict campaign donations from city contractors, regulated businesses and their lobbyists, and it would speed disclosure of campaign donations.

Read complete text of I-122 here.

Critics of the initiative said they see the potential for abuse and fraud.

"I think this is going to increase the hand of special interests in elections," said Robert Mahon, a former Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission chair, who opposes the initiative. "I see the use of paper vouchers, in particular, is going to run the risk, if not corruption, at least abuse by special interests."

In a twist, the committee created to pass the campaign reform proposal attracted more than $1.3 million in contributions, with much of the money pouring in from out of state, according to disclosure reports on the SEEC website. By comparison, the opposition campaign raised under $50,000; top donors to the (somewhat lackluster) "No Election Vouchers" campaign included Microsoft, Vulcan and Sabey Corporation.

"There are some outside donors who think Seattle can be a test bed for a voucher system, which again has never been tried, and I think they're counting on Seattle voters being willing to look past the flaws and adopt something novel that they hope to roll out elsewhere in the country," said Mahon.

The initiative would not eliminate the role of "independent expenditures" in Seattle elections. These involve PACs set up to support a candidate (or attack a favored candidate's opponent), but are run entirely separate from any candidate's campaign. There are no limits on how much money these committees can raise and spend in an election, and an all-time record amount of "IE" spending occurred during the 2015 council elections, with candidates Tim Burgess, Pamela Banks and Shannon Braddock benefiting the most.

It's the failure to address IEs that opponents cite in arguing against I-122 in the official voter's guide: "Candidates can raise the full amount of vouchers but then opt out of the spending limits if an independent expenditure campaign enters the race. This means candidates can double dip – taking taxpayer-funded vouchers while ALSO raising unlimited additional campaign cash."


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