Written by Eric Bronson
Early declarations of political demise are practically an American tradition at this point, so in that sense the Seattle Times’ recent article that prematurely claimed the fatal failure of the democracy voucher program could almost be forgiven as an act of patriotism. However, when it comes to the fundamental right of voting, such an irresponsibly early postmortem cannot be left unanswered.
How exactly did Seattle Time’s Bob Young come to the conclusion that the democracy voucher experiment was a failure before we’ve even certified the first ever election that used them? He chose to define its success as whether it “got big money out of politics” or not. On its face, this is not an unreasonable standard. Honest Elections Seattle, the coalition that brought us democracy vouchers in the city of Seattle with Initiative 122 (I-122) did in fact declare that to a be one of the goals of the law. In certain ways, the law has succeeded at limiting the influence of big money actors, such as recently retired elected officials and contractors with paid lobbyists for the city. Furthermore, I-122 requires greater transparency of financial holdings and personal conflicts of interest, a move that now seems prescient given the trampling of similar disclosure norms at the national level.
Note that I-122 did not set spending limits for those candidates who did not apply for the vouchers. Nor could it restrict the spending of outside money in so-called Independent Expenditure (IE) campaigns, as those are protected by the same U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC that gave us Super PACs.
Democracy vouchers were meant to give a voice to those who did not already have the funds necessary to support their preferred candidate. They cannot prevent the expansion of money in politics by themselves alone. It is also laughably bad practice to report Bob Mahon’s claim that it is the vouchers themselves which are driving an increase in IE money, a claim for which he himself admits there “isn’t enough evidence.” Seattle Chamber might have raised more this year than the last two elections, but 2011 also saw more money from IE campaigns than any previous election as well, a fact Seattle Times itself noted at the time. If we are going to be allowing arguments on correlation, perhaps we ought to begin with the correlation that runs eight years, and not the one that has run eight months.
When we report on the outside and outsize influence of money in our local politics, it is our duty to accurately trace the lineages of those funds in our writing. Blaming democracy vouchers for the unfettered political spending unleashed by the Supreme Court in Citizens United is simply untrue. Young has some fantastic points about the program’s equity problems, as exemplified by Hisam Goueli, who only completed the involved process of qualifying for democracy vouchers on the Friday before election day. This critique cuts to the heart of the true goal of democracy vouchers; that they would involve new, underrepresented communities in candidate pools and give them a fair chance. It is a shame that this important point is buried beneath doomsayer rhetoric and misguided conjecture. Declaring democracy vouchers a failure because they haven’t eradicated money in politics is a bit like blaming a polio vaccination for not curing cancer. Not only are you blaming the wrong tool, you’re undermining the public trust in a valuable method of ensuring the health of the body politic.