Coercing political contributions is unconstitutional
December 07, 2017
Seattle, WA; December 7, 2017: Seattle’s recent City Council elections featured the first use of the city’s coercive new campaign-finance scheme that taxes property owners to pay for other people’s political donations. The roll-out of the “democracy voucher” program vividly displayed how it conscripts property owners into the political process and forces them to subsidize candidates whether they personally support them or not.
Now, Seattle property owners Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon are taking their constitutional challenge to these compelled political contributions to the Washington Court of Appeals. Their appeal comes after a trial court failed to recognize how the First Amendment is violated by compelling property owners to become political donors—and to underwrite candidates with whom they might strongly disagree.
Under the program, Seattle residents are offered four $25 vouchers per election cycle, for donation to candidates for City Council and City Attorney. Property owners foot the bill through a special tax on homes and land.
“We are asking the court of appeals to stop Seattle from forcing property owners to contribute to campaigns, candidates, and causes not of their choosing,” said Ethan Blevins, attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents Mark and Sarah free of charge. “The Constitution protects your right to choose the viewpoints that you will espouse and support—and those that you will not support.
“Freedom of conscience also includes the right to abstain from the political process altogether if that is your choice,” he added. “The trial court ignored this principle when it described the program as ‘viewpoint neutral’ even though it mandates that property owners participate regardless of their views about doing so.
“Property owners are forced not simply to become financially involved in politics, but to fund candidates who might be actively hostile to their interests,” he noted.
Indeed, the two City Council candidates who received the most voucher money both took positions at odds with property owners’ rights. Tenant activist Jon Grant favored forcing rental property owners to engage in collective bargaining with tenants. Union official Teresa Mosqueda, who defeated Grant in the Council Position 8 race, called for enacting “rent control/stabilization policies.” Both collected the maximum of $300,000 in voucher contributions, every penny of which was extracted from property owners through the program’s new tax.
“The election confirmed in practice what was already clear in principle, that the democracy voucher program is undemocratic and unfair,” said Mark Elster. “Homeowners like me are forced to provide financial support for political causes we oppose. This amounts to compelled speech, the very opposite of the freedom to think for yourself that the First Amendment guarantees.”
“Pacific Legal Foundation fights for individual liberty, a core component of which is the right to express one’s freely chosen values and viewpoints,” said PLF President and CEO Steven D. Anderson. “Freedom of speech also includes the right not to promote viewpoints one disagrees with, and we look forward to vindicating this vital principle.”
The case is Elster v. Seattle. More information can be found at www.pacificlegal.org/Elster.
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Pacific Legal Foundation is a national nonprofit legal organization that defends Americans threatened by government overreach and abuse. Since our founding in 1973, we challenge the government when it violates individual liberty and constitutional rights. With active cases in 34 states plus Washington, D.C., PLF represents clients in state and federal courts, with 14 victories out of 16 cases litigated at the U.S. Supreme Court.