Seattle homeowners sue over being forced to help fill candidates’ coffers
SEATTLE, WA; June 28, 2017: Seattle’s new “democracy voucher” program flouts the First Amendment by forcing property owners, through a new tax, to subsidize other people’s political campaign donations and fund candidates not of their choosing.
So contends a lawsuit challenging the program, filed today in King County Superior Court by Pacific Legal Foundation. PLF represents two of the thousands of Seattle property owners forced to pay the voucher tax and underwrite donations to politicians whether they support them or not.
The first of its kind in the country, Seattle’s voucher program was enacted in 2015 as Initiative 122. During each local election cycle, Seattle residents are each entitled to four $25 vouchers, which they can contribute to candidates for city council and city attorney. Candidates must abide by spending limits, among other mandates, to be eligible. The program will eventually be extended to the mayor’s race. Funding comes from a new property tax levied specifically for this program.
“The so-called ‘democracy vouchers’ could not be more undemocratic or unconstitutional,” said PLF attorney Ethan Blevins. “First Amendment rights include both the right to speak and the right not to speak. You can’t be forced to engage in political expression or advocacy that is contrary to your convictions. The voucher program suspends that liberty. It’s about coercion, not free choice. The voucher tax conscripts property owners into footing the bill for other people’s donations. It forces them to fund contributions, candidates, and causes they might not favor.
“In fact, most of the vouchers that have been donated as of the June 7 reporting went to tenant activist Jon Grant, an advocate for collective bargaining for renters,” Blevins noted. “So rental property owners are forced to bankroll a politician who is adverse to their rights and their interests.
“Ironically, because most vouchers are likely to go to candidates with greater name ID, the program could also tend to boost insiders and incumbents — regardless of whether the taxpayers who fund the program support those candidates,” Blevins said. “You could even call it a politicians’ enrichment tax, because it compels property owners to help fill candidates’ coffers. In sum, it amounts to a classic case of compelled speech, a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.”
PLF’s clients: Homeowners defending First Amendment freedoms
In challenging the democracy voucher plan, PLF represents Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon, who both own property in Seattle and are therefore subject to the democracy voucher levy. Both of them object to paying for the political contributions of others, and to funding candidates against their will.
Mr. Elster owns and lives in a single-family home in Seattle. “This program is so patently and obviously unfair,” he said. “The democracy voucher program puts other people’s political beliefs into my mouth, so to speak. It does so by taking my money, through taxes, and bestowing it on others so they can make contributions to candidates who might disagree with me diametrically. That’s wrong, and it’s unconstitutional.”
Ms. Pynchon rents out a single-family home that she owns in Seattle. However, her own residence is outside of the city, so, even while she is helping to pay for the program, she is not eligible to receive democracy vouchers herself.
“I am concerned about a tax on homeowners that is used to fund candidates in elections I cannot participate in, as I do not live in the City of Seattle,” she said. “Further, the program is effectively asking me to fund candidates that I may not agree with. Indeed, as currently structured, the vouchers could be used to elect people who will continue to put financial burdens on outnumbered property owners, a form of taxation without representation.”
“The First Amendment protects many of our basic rights,” said PLF President and CEO Steven Anderson. “Whenever government violates these rights, as Seattle is doing here, PLF will lead the battle to vindicate these rights and with them, our individual liberty.”
About Pacific Legal Foundation
Pacific Legal Foundation, America’s most powerful ally for justice, litigates in courts nationwide for limited government, property rights, individual liberty, and a balanced approach to environmental regulations. PLF represents all clients free of charge.
Case CommentarySee all posts
Today, we filed the opening brief on appeal in Elster v City of Seattle, our legal challenge to Seattle’s program that forces taxpayers to pay for private individuals’ campaign contributions Seattle calls this a “democracy voucher” program
Here’s how it works: the city hands out four $25 vouchers to each Seattle resident at the beginning of an election year The voucher holder then decides which electoral candidates to donate that money to The voucher funds in turn come from a special levy imposed on property owners for that sole purpose In other words, the program forces property owners to underwrite otherRead more
In this week’s episode of PLF’s Courting Liberty podcast, hear from case attorney Ethan Blevins about this decision and how First Amendment rights include both the right to speak and the right not to speak.Read more