The Campaign to Get Money Out of Seattle Politics Is Raising a Lot of Money

Backers say you can bemoan money in politics and lose. “Or you can get in the game and try to win.”

A new ballot measure that aims to counter the influence of money in Seattle politics has found strong support among outside donors who view it as a pilot project that could be replicated nationally.

As a result, they’re pouring money into Seattle politics.

I-122, aka Honest Elections Seattle, is a city initiative on the November ballot that combines strict rules on campaign contributions with publicly financed elections. I-122 would limit contributions to elected officials from both registered lobbyists and companies with fat city contracts. It would expedite public reporting of campaign contributions; require paid signature-gatherers to wear badges identifying them as such; and implement a three-year waiting period for retiring elected officials who want to work as lobbyists.

But its most inventive—and controversial—provision would create so-called “democracy vouchers.” Voters who ask for the vouchers would get $100 worth, and then donate them, in $25 increments, to any qualified candidate of their choice. The vouchers would be funded through a new property tax that would levy $8 on a home with a taxable value of $400,000.

The effort to expunge money from campaigns, though, comes with irony. I-122 has itself amassed a campaign war chest that dwarfs not only the opposition’s, but that of every other campaign in Seattle. Not even whales like Tim Burgess, Pamela Banks, or Kshama Sawant—who’ve each raised about a quarter-million dollars—come close to the roughly $370,000 that Honest Elections has raked in.

More than half of that $370,000 comes from four out-of-state contributors: two national anti-graft activist groups; a union-owned bank on the East Coast; and a rich liberal in New York—Sean Eldridge, failed congressional candidate and husband of The New Republic publisher and Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes. Eldridge is the biggest single donor, contributing $100,000 to the effort. (Another irony: Many saw Eldridge’s run for office, in which he outspent his opponent by $3.3 million, as an attempt to buy a seat in Congress.)

One of the two national groups helping to fund Honest Elections Seattle is the nonpartisan anti-corruption organization Represent.Us, which has put in $20,000. Director Josh Silver says his group is pursuing the same local, bottom-up strategy that progressives have successfully used to push marriage equality, a higher minimum wage, and marijuana legalization.

“Those are issues where they were getting nowhere in Washington, D.C.,” he says, “and advocates realized, ‘We’re going to have to take this fight local, because we’re not going to win nationally, and perhaps we could actually move the needle by winning locally and having a domino effect across the country.’ ”

Campaign finance is perhaps an even more entrenched issue than those others, says Silver. In a political system where virtually every elected leader, right and left, has clawed his or her way into office with the help of wealthy donors, real campaign-finance reform amounts to an existential threat to the very leaders who have the authority to pass it.

That’s why Silver’s so psyched about this campaign. If voters in the Emerald City can slay, or at least maim, the beast of megabucks, it could start a stampede of similar legislation across the country. He’s quick, though, to rebut the suggestion that this supposedly grassroots campaign is really AstroTurf for a national agenda.

“In Seattle, it really is and was a homegrown effort,” Silver says. “This was initiated by folks like Alan Durning at Sightline Institute, and FUSE . . . and other progressive groups that really took the initiative in Seattle.

“We were never part of any early planning,” he adds. “We’re rooting them on from the sidelines.”

Durning, executive director of the progressive think tank Sightline, says that a coalition of local groups has spent the past year crafting the vouchers/anti-graft legislation. National groups became aware of it when their lawyers reviewed the initiative for constitutional issues. “We think that Seattle is a city with smart, informed voters who are willing to try new things,” Durning says, adding that national reformers got excited about Seattle’s push for democracy vouchers because vouchers poll well even among moderates and conservatives. “But you have to go someplace first and prove that they work,” he says.

The campaign is not without its critics, though they so far have far less money to get their message out. The opposition campaign, No Election Vouchers, has so far raised only $800, though Durning says they expect much more to appear before the election’s over. The primary funder so far is Sound View Strategies, home of former Ed Murray campaign adviser Sandeep Kaushik.

“There are lots of people in Seattle, myself included, who are supportive of . . . public financing of elections,” Kaushik says. “But the problem here is that this ‘democracy vouchers’ scheme . . . actually increases opportunities for corruption and abuse in our elections, and perhaps even worse, [it] is going to increase the power of already-powerful special interests.”

Kaushik says he worries that business or labor groups could direct their members to all give their vouchers to the same set of candidates. In the worst-case scenario, the vouchers would effectively subsidize lobbying rather than counter it. Durning replies that “That’s the point”: to shift influence away from organizations with large bank accounts and to organizations with large memberships. “That’s a feature, not a bug,” he says.

Other problems Kaushik foresees: Having millions of dollars in election vouchers floating around will lead unscrupulous voters to try to sell theirs; and lower campaign-contribution limits will just push more money into independent-expenditure campaigns (which are basically PACs), where its origins and uses will become even more opaque. “All they’re doing is they’re pushing money into a darker corner of the campaign-finance world,” he says.

Kaushik’s final objection: If each of Seattle’s roughly 410,000 registered voters get $100 in vouchers, that’s $41 million. How can Seattle pay for that with a property tax that raises only $3 million per year? “The proponents cannot guarantee that voucher money isn’t going to run out,” says Kaushik.

Actually, they can. I-122 includes spending limits for each participating candidate. If you want public vouchers, you have to promise not to fundraise above a certain point—between $150,000 and $800,000 depending on the position. These spending limits mean that the limit on how much voucher funding is spent during an election is determined not by the number of participating voters, but by the number of participating candidates. And not just any candidate can participate. To ensure that only serious candidates receive vouchers, participants are required to raise a certain number of donations (150 for district council seats, 600 for mayor) of at least $10 each.

Proponents like Durning are confident that, after months of design, the budget is “airtight.” When you crunch the numbers, even in a worst-case scenario, the voucher program is extremely unlikely to run out of money.

Durning acknowledges that I-122 is not perfect. “The U.S. Supreme Court does not let us . . . just ban big money,” he says. Instead, it has “left us with . . . a set of less-good options, and prominent among them is that we can spend local money to dilute the influence of big money.”

And sure, he admits, it’s ironic that a campaign against money in politics is getting so much political money to back it. It’s also ironic that wildfire fighters in eastern Washington are setting fires themselves in order to eliminate fuel for larger infernos.

The reality, says Durning, is that money makes the political world go ’round. “You can bemoan [that fact] and lose,” he says, “or you can get in the game and try to win.”

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