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Lawsuit Challenging Seattle Voucher Program Unlikely to Succeed

In 2015, Seattle voters passed an initiative creating the nation’s first “democracy voucher” program.

  • Brent Ferguson
  • Ava Mehta
July 18, 2017

In 2015, Seattle voters passed an initi­at­ive creat­ing the nation’s first “demo­cracy voucher” program through which each resid­ent gets four $25 vouch­ers they can give to any candid­ate who agrees to abide by certain soli­cit­a­tion and spend­ing limits. The law passed by a whop­ping 20-point margin, confirm­ing that Seattle voters agree with the 85 percent of Amer­ic­ans who believe our campaign finance system needs a major over­haul. Now, however, a group called the Pacific Legal Found­a­tion (PLF) has filed a lawsuit alleging the program viol­ates the First Amend­ment. The people of Seattle (and others hoping to follow their example) should not be fooled. There is noth­ing wrong with this innov­at­ive new law. If anything, other cities and states should use it as a model.   

PLF’s complaint alleges that Seattle’s voucher program “disfa­vors minor­ity interests” since more popu­lar candid­ates will receive more fund­ing (through vouch­ers) than unpop­u­lar candid­ates. This charge is unlikely to go anywhere. Most notably, in its seminal 1976 decision, Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court upheld the pres­id­en­tial public finan­cing system, which, like Seattle’s program, provides more money to candid­ates with more grass­roots support (by match­ing the amount they raise in small contri­bu­tions during the primar­ies). The Court did not so much as hint that ampli­fy­ing the voices of small donors improp­erly “disfa­vor[ed] minor­ity interests.” Follow­ing the Supreme Court’s lead, federal courts have routinely upheld state and city programs that do the same thing.

Uphold­ing such programs makes sense. In Seattle, as in other juris­dic­tions with small-donor public finan­cing, candid­ates have an equal oppor­tun­ity to access public funds by appeal­ing for support. Indeed, the distri­bu­tion of fund­ing is far less arbit­rary than many other govern­ment programs. Allow­ing qual­i­fied voters to direct their equal share of public funds to candid­ates who meet the condi­tions of the voucher program does not create a First Amend­ment viol­a­tion.

Perhaps recog­niz­ing the weak­ness of its basic claim, PLF places great emphasis on the fact that the voucher program, unlike other public finan­cing programs, is funded through prop­erty taxes, claim­ing that it “forces Seattle prop­erty owners to subsid­ize campaign contri­bu­tions.” But courts have routinely upheld programs financed by general or targeted taxes or fines, and this is but one type of govern­ment-funded expres­sion. 

Our tax dollars are used to pay the salar­ies of elec­ted offi­cials who espouse ideas many taxpay­ers abhor; pay for govern­ment advert­ising promot­ing programs with which many taxpay­ers disagree; and fund univer­sit­ies, museums, librar­ies and other programs that produce or contain speech that many taxpay­ers find objec­tion­able. Short of elim­in­at­ing govern­ment, the best response to this prob­lem is advocacy for candid­ates, ideas, and programs that best repres­ent one’s views and interests. The voucher program is designed to help more citizens do just that.

While PLF’s lawsuit lacks a strong legal found­a­tion, it seeks to score polit­ical points by fram­ing the voucher program as an assault on the speech of less popu­lar candid­ates and prop­erty owners. In doing this, it ignores the real­ity that privately-financed elec­tions across the coun­try are domin­ated by a few wealthy indi­vidu­als and busi­nesses, who effect­ively drown out the voices of the major­ity of citizens across the polit­ical spec­trum. The voucher program is designed to fight back by enabling broader parti­cip­a­tion in elec­tion fund­ing so that elec­ted offi­cials will give more of their time and atten­tion to a greater number of their constitu­ents.  Similar programs in New York City and else­where have succeeded, persuad­ing candid­ates to rely prin­cip­ally on small contri­bu­tions and encour­aging more people to parti­cip­ate by giving amounts they can afford. Seattle’s program is likely to do the same. Rather than conjur­ing up imagined prob­lems, we should be think­ing about how to build on its success to ensure that all Amer­ic­ans have a renewed stake in our demo­cracy.

(Photo: Think­stock.)