December 17, 2018

Seattle “democracy vouchers” head to state supreme court

By Ethan W. Blevins Attorney
Thomas Jefferson said, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.”

People use money to express themselves. Resistance T-shirts, MAGA hats, donations to moveon.org, promoted tweets—whatever your views may be, shouting louder than the other guy will cost you.

So, what if government takes money from one person to pay for another person’s expression? Is that really any different from forcing a Democrat to don a MAGA hat, or a Tar Heels fan to wear a Blue Devils jersey? (Full disclosure: I’m a Duke Law grad).

The Supreme Court’s answer is “no”: you can’t force someone to subsidize ideas they oppose.

That hasn’t stopped city leaders in Seattle, though. A few years back, Seattle cooked up something called a “democracy voucher.” Here’s how the vouchers work: each election year, Seattle dishes out four $25 vouchers to each city resident. People can then give those vouchers to a candidate running for local office.

But someone pays for those political contributions, and it isn’t the person making the contribution. In this case, Seattle funds its vouchers from a special property tax. In other words, property owners must pay for other people’s political donations.

So PLF filed a lawsuit on behalf of two Seattle property owners, arguing that the city cannot force them to sponsor the political views of their neighbors. We lost at the trial court, but after a long wait the court of appeals has just issued a highly unusual order. The court of appeals did not decide the case. Instead, the court said the case “presents a fundamental and urgent issue of broad public import” and then asked the state supreme court to figure it out. The supreme court has granted that request.

The supreme court may have granted the case because a major U.S. Supreme Court decision about compelled subsidies, Janus v. AFSCME, was issued after PLF appealed the trial court decision. Whatever their reason, the state supreme court recognizes the significance of this case and has concerns with the trial court’s handling of the case. We look forward to persuading the Washington Supreme Court that no one should be forced to support viewpoints they oppose. Not even a Tar Heel.

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Elster v. City of Seattle, Washington

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.

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