Democracy vouchers will soon be in the mail to registered voters in the city of Seattle, as part of a first of its kind campaign finance initiative launching next year.
“I made a lot of calls when I first started to other jurisdictions that had similar things, and there's just nothing like this out there, so it's actually been kind of exciting,” said René LeBeau, Seattle’s new democracy voucher program manager.
LeBeau, who works under the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), has been working on implementation for the past year, ever since Honest Elections I-122 was passed overwhelmingly by Seattle voters in 2015.
The bulk of prep work, so far, has gone into education and outreach, as well as creating the computer system to help track the vouchers.
2 million of them will be mailed out to registered voters Jan. 3, 2017.
Each one will be assigned a special identification number and barcode, so elections officials can account for them and verify voter signatures.
Voters and eligible participants will receive four $25 vouchers that can go towards candidates who opt into the public campaign finance program.
The initiative is funded through a small property tax increase, estimated at $11.50 a year for the average homeowner, according to SEEC. An estimated $3 million per year will be raised, over the next 10 years.
While the program will not fund all possible eligible participants, supporters believe it will still significantly boost voter participation and engagement.
“We’re still looking at a dramatic increase in the number of people who participate,” said SEEC Executive Director Wayne Barnett.
While registered voters will automatically receive the vouchers, non-registered voters, including legal permanent residents, may also be eligible to participate. SEEC is currently accepting applications.
Related: More information about the program
Democracy vouchers will apply only to two city council races next year (the at-large positions), as well at the city attorney’s race. The new program will not apply to the mayoral race, in its first year.
Candidates who opt-in will follow new maximum contribution guidelines, $250/individual, in addition to the $100 in vouchers.
So far, Jon Grant who’s exploring a run for at-large Seattle City Council Position 8, has submitted papers to opt into the program, according to SEEC.
“We’ve talked to roughly 10 candidates, so I do think we’ll see more candidates participate,” said Barnett.
Barnett is urging voters who receive the vouchers early next month to keep them in a safe spot until election season ramps up.
“The primary is not until August, so one of the key messages is getting people to hold onto them,” explained Barnett. “Put them in a drawer; put them in a desk; put them somewhere, so that when the candidate arrives at your door, knocks and asks for your voucher, that you’re going to be able to find it.”
While critics of the initiative have voiced concern about the potential for fraud and manipulation, supporters maintain it will level the playing field and allow much great participation in the elections process, especially for citizens who don’t have extra cash lying around for candidates.
“We know that only roughly one to 2% of Seattlites ever contribute to a local campaign. I think the goal is to get people more invested in their city government, and one of the ways to do that is to give them a stake earlier in the process,” said Barnett.
As for whether he’s nervous about launching a program that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country, Barnett says his team is feeling confident.
“It is a lot of pressure. We really want to make sure that this gets off the ground in a way that serves the mission that it intends to serve,” he said.