In Seattle, voters just approved a campaign finance system that is very different. The usual concept of the public financing of elections refers to a system where candidates first raise money on their own, then the government contributes a matching or pre-set amount to the campaigns.
Beginning in 2017, Seattle residents will have the option of contributing to local candidates without spending their own money. Instead, the government will mail each registered voter four $25 vouchers that they can contribute to their preferred candidates. Candidates can choose to opt out of this system, but those who do participate will have to adhere to strict limits for accepting private donations and spending,
Alan Durning, the executive director of the advocacy group, Sightline Institute, said that, “The promise of vouchers is turning every single voter in the city into a donor.”
This type of voucher system will be the first of its kind in the country and Seattle plans to pay the annual $3 million cost of the program by modestly increasing property taxes. Officials hope that the program will increase the number of political donors to record numbers - largely because the “money” they are spending is not their own.
One major aim of the voucher program is to force candidates to directly interact with regular city voters rather than drumming up donations by catering to the affluent donor class.
Every registered voter will receive their vouchers in January 2017. However, the program is only funded so that a maximum of 47,000 residents can use them.
There are some critics of the system who believe that the voucher system will benefit incumbents and long-time politicians who do not need any extra funding.
“It’s a first-come, first-serve system, which means that if you don’t use your vouchers early, they’ll become worthless when the money runs out,” stated Robert Mahon, a former chairman of Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission.
Mahon also observed that because voters will receive their vouchers ten months before the election, insurgent and outsider candidates will have disadvantages. “Very few non-incumbents, or non establishment candidates, have their campaigns geared up or will be in a position to collect vouchers. My fear is that incumbents and those that are backed by significant financial resources are going to be in a position, as the holiday decorations are getting put away, to come in and scoop up those vouchers.”
He further added that, “That’s one of the ironies in all of this. The way it’s set up is it benefits people who don’t need it. But unfortunately, everybody’s paying for it.”
Durning disagrees with Mahon and dismisses these arguments as “preposterous fear-mongering.”