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A Win for Public Financing at the Supreme Court

With a Seattle case, the Court continues to affirm that public financing programs are constitutional, writes Brennan Center Fellow Ciara Torres-Spelliscy.

In some good news for reformers working to combat political corruption and empower small donors, the Supreme Court has rejected a challenge to Seattle’s “democracy voucher” program providing public financing for local elections.

Most American elections are entirely privately funded. Public financing offers an alternative source of funding for political candidates, offering the societal benefit of helping to fight crony capitalism where elected officials dole out governmental benefits to politically connected firms.

Crony capitalism is a real risk in a democracy that relies on private funds for elections. For instance, a recent study found a troubling link between corporate support for candidates and governmental incentives for those same firms. This study found that in the United States, economic incentives are disproportionately awarded to politically-connected companies, even though these awards appear to be a less effective use of taxpayer-provided funds.” In other words, instead of awarding the best companies, firms with the best political ties were the beneficiaries.

There are different types of public financing for elections, but the basic idea is that public dollars are used to replace private dollars in elections. New York City has one of the largest and oldest public financing systems in the country for its city council and citywide offices. Meanwhile, three states — Maine, Connecticut, and Arizona — have “clean” financing for elections for their governors and legislatures.

Seattle is a relative newcomer to public financing. In 2015, the city’s voters passed an initiative called Honest Elections Seattle, which includes a reform that provides $100 in “democracy vouchers” (four vouchers of $25 each) to eligible residents, who can then direct those funds to their preferred participating candidates. 

Public financing programs like Seattle’s can democratize political campaign contributions. In Seattle, for example, 84 percent of election donors in 2017 were new donors, according to a study by the organization Every Voice. Similarly, the Brennan Center has found that New York City’s public financing system has led to a more diverse pool of campaign donors compared to New York State’s privately funded elections.

Seattle’s $3 million democracy voucher program is funded through taxes on commercial and residential properties. Represented by the right-leaning Pacific Legal Foundation, property owners Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon filed a lawsuit challenging the program, claiming that it was unconstitutional for the city to use their tax dollars to indirectly support candidates they disagreed with.

Elster and Pynchon lost at the trial court in 2017. In the opinion, Judge Beth Andrus wrote, “The City has articulated a reasonable justification for the Democracy Voucher Program. It seeks an increase in voter participation in the electoral process. This goal was recognized by [the U.S. Supreme Court] to be [a] ‘goal[] vital to a self-governing people.’”

The plaintiffs also lost in the Washington State Supreme Court in 2019. The justices wrote, “The Democracy Voucher Program does not alter, abridge, restrict, censor, or burden speech. Nor does it force association between taxpayers and any message conveyed by the program. Thus, the program does not violate First Amendment rights.”

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling in place.

The Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of publicly financed elections. For example, in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling, it upheld the Presidential Public Financing System, which provided matching funds in the primaries and grants in the general election for presidential candidates. In 2011, the Court upheld most of Arizona’s state public financing program. And by leaving the Washington State Supreme Court’s ruling intact, the U.S. Supreme Court continues to allow public financing as a viable response to the problem of big money in elections.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Citizens United v. FEC, in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited money in elections. The decision soured many campaign finance reformers’ view of the Supreme Court. But reformers should take comfort in the fact the Supreme Court still allows for public financing systems like Seattle’s innovative democracy voucher program. Other cities and states should follow Seattle’s lead. And once a new Congress is seated, the public financing provisions in the democracy reform bill H.R.1 should be enacted into law as well.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center