By Alex Meyer
Seattle voters will have the chance to make their voices heard (at least financially) through the new ‘Democracy Voucher’ program, set to begin this August for the city’s primary elections. As reported in a recent Guardian article, registered voters in the city will receive $100 in vouchers, to be donated to the candidate of their choice, thanks to a property tax measure put forth back in November 2015.
The move echoes the recent presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, whose donations consisted almost entirely of smaller amounts contributed by individual donors.
The initiative in Seattle aims to capture the small-donor enthusiasm and empower voters who otherwise feel disenfranchised during election season. Mark Trahant, a professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota, noted in a recent analysis of First Amendment freedoms that with regard to freedom to petition, professional lobbyists seemed to hold an overwhelming proportion of sway over campaign matters.
Jon Grant, a candidate for the Seattle primaries, is embracing the program during his bid for the August elections. Having taken a pledge to refuse donations from corporations and developers, Grant states that he “wanted to show that democracy vouchers can support grassroots campaigns that want to address systemic issues like homelessness.” His campaign has engaged with homeless communities across the city in an attempt to register voters and stabilize living conditions.
Despite the popularity of the programs, opposition has arisen in the form of a lawsuit against the city on behalf of two property owners. Their law firm claims that their clients’ freedom of speech has been violated by “unwittingly funding” through taxes politicians such as Grant, who are adverse to their own interests.
Professor Hugh Spitzer, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Washington, claims that the argument lacks any legal basis. He and lawyer Brent Ferguson note that courts have traditionally rejected arguments that publicly-funded election campaigns somehow force people to support speech with which they disagree. Proponents of the bill argue that it enhances individual speech and power of petition, particularly to vulnerable groups such as homeless and low-income households.
Ethan Blevins, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, argues that democracy vouchers are unique in their legal questionability: ”It’s the government as the speaker versus the individual as the speaker.”
At the moment the lawsuit is pending and the voucher program remains in place.