(The Center Square) – Campaign finance reform modeled on Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program may be headed back to the Washington State Legislature in 2024. House Bill 1755, introduced but stalled in committee in 2023, is expected to be reintroduced for the 2024 session.
In anticipation of future debate, the House State Government & Tribal Relations Committee scheduled a work session on Friday, Oct. 27. Representatives were present both in Olympia and online to hear from experts describing the Seattle program.
Adopted in 2015 by a citizen-led initiative, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission was directed to oversee what was described as a first in the nation experiment in public campaign financing. The initiative included a new property tax as the funding source for a total of $100 in vouchers for each registered voter. Legal non-citizen residents may also apply to be included in the Seattle voucher program. Passed originally by a 2-to-1 margin, voters will have a chance to reconsider the program in 2025.
HB 1755 does not include any new funding source for a proposed statewide legislative voucher program.
The presentation on campaign vouchers was led by Aaron McKean of the Campaign Legal Center. CLC is based in Washington D.C. and is a nonpartisan nonprofit seeking to “advance democracy through law at the federal, state and local levels.” McKean pointed out how public financing addresses the perception of undue influence by donors, and said Seattle’s program tends to lower the size of donations.
According to Rene LeBeau, program manager for Seattle’s vouchers, public financing has increased political participation by encouraging candidates to reach out for support among a broader base. The number of people contributing directly to campaigns has increased, with more of that money coming from within the city instead of outside sources.
Each voucher is worth $25 and may be contributed to any candidate meeting threshold requirements.
Rep. Greg Cheney, R-Battle Ground, questioned whether vouchers could wind up being funneled to a candidate with an anti-democratic or even repulsive base who would otherwise not have access to funds to run a serious campaign. Wayne Burnett, executive director of SEEC, said there is a qualifying process. A city council candidate elected by district must have 150 individual donors before being eligible to receive vouchers. The threshold is higher for at-large council positions, city attorney and the mayoral race. Qualifying contributions must be at least $10 per donor. Seattle’s program limits private contributions directly to a candidate at $250 limit, and sets a maximum total raised from all sources for each campaign.
There was no discussion at the Friday hearing on the possible interplay between Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program and independent expenditures by individuals or groups. Reporting by The Seattle Times in August indicated there may be some increase in spending by groups not affiliated with any candidates’ campaign, another source of campaign finance frustration for both voters and candidates.
In addition, House members heard presentations on several other election related topics, including voting online, mandatory universal voting and ranked choice voting.