Elster v. City of Seattle, Washington

Seattle’s politician enrichment tax forces property owners to subsidize private political speech and violates the First Amendment

Cases > Freedom of Speech and Association > Elster v. City of Seattle, Washington
Case Status: Active: Court of appeals certified question to the Washington Supreme Court Dec. 17, 2018. Oral argument set for May 14, 2019. PLF’s answer to amicus brief filed April 24, 2019.

Representing Seattle residents and property owners, PLF sued to overturn Seattle’s ordinance mandating public campaign financing. Under the city’s “democracy voucher” program, each Seattle resident receives four $25 vouchers to support eligible candidates for local political office. The money to fund the voucher program is taken from the city’s property owners via a dedicated levy. The lawsuit argues that these compelled subsidies violate the First Amendment right to refrain from speaking – or funding the speech of another person.

In 2015, the City of Seattle adopted “democracy vouchers” with the passage of Initiative 122. The law went into effect in 2017, with the first vouchers – paid for by property owners via a tax on their land – distributed to residents who then contribute to eligible candidates for local city offices. There is no refund mechanism or exemption for conscientious objectors. The city anticipates raising $30 million over a ten-year period to fund the local politician’s campaigns. PLF represents Seattle property owners Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon in a lawsuit to strike down this unconstitutional law as a violation of their First Amendment rights against compelled speech. Many property owners, such as Ms. Pynchon, own property within the city and are subject to the levy even though they live outside the city limits and cannot themselves receive vouchers. Both Mr. Elster and Ms. Pynchon object to bankrolling political speech that they don’t want to support.

The democracy voucher program disfavors minority viewpoints. Because the campaign contributions are filtered through Seattle residents, the distribution of the voucher funds will inevitably reflect mainstream views. This outcome differs from a neutral public funding scheme in which all candidates receive an equal amount of public funds. By distributing such funds at the whim of majoritarian interests, the program disfavors minority viewpoints. It also disfavors the supporters of candidates who object to and refuse to abide by the increased campaign contribution limits required to participate because these candidates’ supporters cannot use their vouchers to contribute to their preferred campaign. The law’s many flaws are such that it cannot withstand the strict scrutiny applied to infringements on First Amendment-protected rights.

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What’s at stake?

  • Seattle’s forced electioneering law requires landlords and other property owners to fund local politicians’ candidacies; even those at odds with their rights and basic interests.
  • The First Amendment upholds human dignity — the power to shape our identity by what we believe and express. That dignity is sullied by a government that forces its people to serve as unwilling vessels for beliefs that repel them.

Case Timeline

Notice of Appeal

December 07, 2017 Download

Complaint

June 28, 2017 Download

Litigation Backgrounder

June 27, 2017 Download

Case Attorneys

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