Elster v. City of Seattle, Washington
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.