Last year’s elections saw gains in use of the public campaign financing system among people of color, younger, and lower-income Seattleites, according to a new report.

Written by David Moore, Co-Founder of Sludge

Published: August 23, 2022 7:02PM EDT

Seattle residents made record use of the city’s public campaign financing system in the 2021 elections, with more people donating “democracy vouchers” than ever before in the first contest where vouchers could be given to candidates for Seattle mayor.

A review of the program found that not only did democracy voucher use hit a record high, but also that the donors were the most racially diverse group of Seattleites since the program began. The city’s innovative democracy voucher program has now more than doubled its users since its debut in the 2017 election cycle.

The new report, by Associate Professors Dr. Jen Heerwig of Stony Brook University and Brian J. McCabe of Georgetown University, found that democracy voucher users are increasingly representative of the city, similar to Seattle’s general election voters in their age distribution, income levels, and race.

Adopted by Seattle voters through a 2015 ballot initiative, the democracy voucher program aims to increase participation in the campaign finance system and foster political engagement while encouraging candidates who don’t already have networks of wealthy donors to run for office.

Last year, 48,071 Seattle residents gave a voucher to a candidate running in the city, making up 7.6% of the voting-age population—or, as a percentage of residents who received vouchers in the mail, a participation rate of 9.4%. The 2021 elections, the third cycle with democracy vouchers offered to Seattle voters, included contests for two at-large city council seats and city attorney, in addition to the crowded field of candidates running for the open mayoral seat.

Under the first-of-its-kind program, the independent Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) mails four democracy vouchers worth $25 apiece to every registered voter, who can donate them to qualifying candidates for city office, either through the mail, digitally, or by signing in-person to hand to a candidate. The candidates who choose to accept vouchers, which are redeemable for funding from the city, agree to abide by lower campaign contribution limits—including both vouchers and cash donations from individuals—and participate in at least three public debates, with their funding totals from vouchers displayed online. Candidates who participate also agree to observe a maximum amount they can raise and spend for the offices they seek—for example, $800,000 for the mayoral primary and general election combined, counting voucher donations and monetary contributions.

In Seattle’s 2021 elections, the majority of candidates for mayor, at-large city council, and city attorney participated in the public financing program, including the two mayoral candidates who moved on to the general election, Bruce Harrell and Lorena González. The high-profile race attracted most of the vouchers: about 71% of Seattle’s voucher users last year donated a voucher in the mayoral election. The researchers note that only a small percentage of Seattleites have used their vouchers in all three election cycles, writing, “These findings suggest that the voucher program is offering space for new participants in local politics, rather than entrenching a class of consistent voucher users.”

From the 2019 elections to the 2021 elections, Heerwig and McCabe found that the participation rate for democracy vouchers increased across all racial groups, with Black Seattleites more than doubling their participation rate from 3.1% to 7.5%. Voucher use among Hispanic residents nearly doubled last year. 

Compared to the program’s debut in 2017, voucher participation in the age group 18-29 jumped from 2.4% to 6.3% in 2021, and doubled among voters aged 30-44. Similarly, voucher participation nearly doubled among the households in the lowest income bracket of $30,000 and below, going from 4% in 2017 to 7.7% last year. 

Alongside the rise in voucher usage, Heerwig and McCabe found that the rate of Seattle residents donating cash to city candidates also more than doubled since the introduction of vouchers, going from 1.5% in 2013 to 3.4% in 2021—an indication, they write, that the voucher program could be spurring more engagement both among voters with vouchers and among the pool of candidates who choose to run for local office.

The steady growth in democracy voucher users, especially among groups that historically have had lower election participation rates, means that voucher users are mirroring the registered voters of Seattle in their income levels and age distribution—and that in 2021, people of color in Seattle were as likely to use a voucher as they were to vote.

Teresa Mosqueda, an at-large Seattle City Council member who won in 2017 and again last year participating in the voucher program, told the Brennan Center for Justice of her experience, “Not only did we hear people say, ‘Hey, this is the first time I’ve ever donated,’ but the map shows it so expli­citly… If you look at the contri­bu­tions for the at-large city coun­cil seats like mine, you saw people donat­ing in the South End, histor­ic­ally Black and Brown areas of the city, in the North End, a histor­ic­ally lower income area of our city.” 

Less Money Flowing In From Donors Outside Seattle

A recent report from SEEC, which in addition to administering the public financing program receives campaign finance reports from city candidates, suggests another way that democracy vouchers could be working to bolster local participation and incentivize politicians to be more responsive to their communities. 

The report found that the share of contributors from outside Seattle in the 2015 contest for at-large city council seats—before the voucher program was underway—was a hefty 31.6%. In the 2017 and 2021 cycles, however, that share shrank to just 6.7% and 6.6% of contributors, meaning that far fewer donors outside Seattle have been giving cash to candidates since vouchers came into play. 

The results are even more stark looking at last year’s mayoral race. In the 2013 and 2017 contests, before vouchers were in effect in the election for mayor, about 23% of contributors to mayoral hopefuls came from outside Seattle, whereas in 2021 that share fell to just 7.1% of contributors. Instead of donors outside Seattle making up one of the largest blocs of campaign contributors, last year the out-of-city donors made up a smaller share than any of Seattle’s seven districts. 

Even in races pitting one candidate who opted in to public financing against one who did not, small donors still made up the largest share of contributors, according to the analysis by SEEC. In the general election for at-large Seattle council seats last year, where two of the four candidates opted in to the democracy voucher program, the number of contributors giving under $100 was nearly double the number giving in amounts between $100 and $399. 

The voucher program’s rollout has significantly boosted the overall number of small donors, as shown by data in the SEEC report: in at-large city council races in 2021, the number of contributors giving below $100 jumped by nearly six times compared with 2015, before democracy vouchers were launched. In the election for mayor last year, more than five times as many small donors gave compared with the 2017 election cycle, before vouchers were offered in the mayor’s race.

Last year, large business interests in Seattle changed their spending strategy after dropping over $4.1 million on city council races in the 2019 cycle, led by $1.8 million by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s PAC, which had received a $1.5 million donation from Amazon. With the business-favored candidates largely defeated in 2019 races and facing blowback to the onslaught of spending in the city’s elections, donors from Seattle’s real estate and investment industries steered their donations in 2021 to a charter amendment on homelessness called Compassion Seattle. The measure was rejected by a state judge in late August of last year and did not appear on the ballot.

Tom Latkowski, a policy organizer at the nonpartisan Democracy Policy Network who released a book last year on the impacts of democracy vouchers, told Sludge of the latest Seattle analysis, “I’m thrilled by these results, which demonstrate the program’s effectiveness at engaging underrepresented communities, and expanding access to the political process.”

In 2025, seven Seattle council districts will be on the ballot, and the tens of thousands of Seattleites who gave a voucher to a mayoral candidate last year will have another chance to donate to one or more council candidates.

In Oakland, voters this November will decide on a ballot measure to create “Democracy Dollars” in their city. The success of Seattle’s program in increasing political engagement helped inform the efforts of the Bay Area groups promoting the ballot measure, according to the community group Oakland Rising.

Correction: this report initially stated that vouchers were redeemable for funding from the state government, when the funding is transferred from the city government.