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Elster v. City of Seattle

Elster v. City of Seattle is a suit in Washington State that challenges Seattle's system of public financing for election campaigns.

Published: June 4, 2018

Case Background

Elster v. City of Seattle is a challenge to Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program, which was approved by sixty percent of City voters in 2015. That program allocates four $25 “democracy vouchers” to each Seattle resident who is of voting age. Individuals may direct their vouchers to preferred candidates for city-wide office. The vouchers are funded with a property tax levied on property within Seattle city limits.

Plaintiffs have argued that the Democracy Voucher program violates the First Amendment because their tax dollars help fund candidates whose views they may not support, making the program a form of compelled speech. A state trial court rejected this argument. The case is currently before the Washington State Court of Appeals.

The Brennan Center for Justice, along with the Campaign Legal Center and Common Cause, submitted an amicus brief to the Court of Appeals in support of the Democracy Voucher program. The brief notes that innovative public financing schemes like Seattle’s foster more speech from a greater range of speakers. In doing so, they not only fail to burden First Amendment rights, but actually advance the fundamental goals of the First Amendment, as the Supreme Court recognized in Buckley v. Valeo. Under Buckley, Seattle’s program is presumptively valid. And even if that were not the case -- meaning that the city’s program would need to be justified by a heightened government interest -- the program would still easily pass muster based, in part, on a considerable body of social science research showing the benefits of public financing for our democracy.

Washington State Court of Appeals

Washington State Superior Court (King County)