SEATTLE — A judge has upheld Seattle’s first-in-the-nation voucher system for publicly financing political campaigns as constitutional.
In a decision late Thursday, King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus rejected a challenge brought by two local property owners who said the so-called “democracy voucher” program forces them — through their tax dollars — to support candidates they don’t like.
Seattle’s voters approved the program in 2015, and it’s being used for the first time in this year’s City Council and city attorney races. Under it, the voters taxed themselves $3 million a year in exchange for four $25 vouchers that they can sign over to candidates.
The idea is to counter big money in elections, help lesser-known candidates raise money to communicate their views, and to get more voters involved in politics.
The program is legal because the city has a reasonable justification for it, it doesn’t promote any particular viewpoint over any other, and it falls within the scope of public campaign financing allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the judge wrote.
“The City has articulated a reasonable justification for the Democracy Voucher Program,” Andrus wrote. “It seeks an increase in voter participation in the electoral process. … The Democracy Voucher Program is a viewpoint neutral method for achieving this goal.”
The Pacific Legal Foundation, the libertarian-leaning law firm which represented local property owners Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon, will appeal, said attorney Ethan Blevins.
“This disappointing decision runs contrary to a long line of Supreme Court cases stating that the First Amendment allows each of us to decide what to say and what not to say,” Blevins said in a written statement Friday. “The Supreme Court has applied this rule to compelled speech and compelled subsidies of speech, like the tax at issue here. Our clients and Seattle property owners generally should not be forced to sponsor other people’s political views.”
But the U.S. Supreme Court has generally upheld the public financing of campaigns, within the limits of the First Amendment, saying that “public financing as a means of eliminating the improper influence of large private contributions furthers a significant governmental interest” — helping to eliminate corruption.
The ruling was welcomed by the city and by groups pushing to reduce the influence of big money in campaigns.
“This positive decision protects the city of Seattle’s ability to boost citizen engagement in local campaigns,” said Tara Malloy, of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.
According to the city, the tax that raises money for the program costs the average homeowner $11.50 per year. Only a fraction of the city’s voters have provided vouchers to candidates, so there’s been more than enough money raised by the tax to cover the costs.
Candidates must qualify to receive the vouchers by collecting certain numbers of small-dollar contributions. The latest data from the program, updated Thursday, shows the candidates have redeemed more than 42,000 vouchers valued at more than $1 million.
City Council candidates Teresa Mosqueda and Jon Grant have each received and redeemed the maximum number allowed — 12,000, valued at $300,000.