June 28, 2017

Seattle's "democracy vouchers" violate the First Amendment

By Seattle's "democracy vouchers" violate the First Amendment

Today, PLF filed a complaint to uphold Seattle property owners’ right to free speech. In 2015, Seattle passed Initiative 122 and became the first city to adopt “democracy vouchers.” These so-called vouchers compel property owners to contribute to partisan political speech through a dedicated property levy. The stated goal of I-122 is to “ensure the people of Seattle have equal opportunity to participate in political campaigns and be heard by candidates, to strengthen democracy . . . and prevent corruption.” In theory this may sound like a laudable goal, but in reality it is nothing more than a tax to enrich city politicians by forcing property owners to fund their campaigns whether they support them or not. Thankfully, just as the First Amendment protects your right to speech, it also protects your right to refrain from speech or supporting speech that you categorically oppose.

The new property tax authorizes the county tax assessor to collect up to $30 million by 2025 for the vouchers. Once collected, the city distributes four $25 vouchers at the beginning of each election year to all registered Seattle voters. In addition, eligible adults living in the city for more than thirty days may also apply for the vouchers. Once received, the vouchers may only be given to candidates who participate in the voucher program.

Moreover, unlike other public funded election schemes, Seattle’s system is not neutral. The candidate with the most support receives the highest amount of voucher funds. Thus, the “democracy vouchers” will only promote majoritarian preferences and disfavor minority preferences.

This is especially troubling because renters make up over 54% of the population and usually have adverse interests to property owners on issues like property rights and housing policy. In effect, the program forces Seattle property owners to fill politicians’ pockets who may be diametrically opposed to property owners’ interest in the city. Even worse, if property owners support a candidate who doesn’t participate in the voucher system, the owners may not use their vouchers to support that candidate and in return will still be forced to pay for candidates they oppose. To add insult to injury, landlords who own property in the city, but live outside of the city, cannot receive vouchers and will be funding candidates against their interest in an election that they can’t even participate in.

Not only does I-22 violate the right to refrain from speech, it creates an administrative nightmare and undermines the very goals which it seeks to achieve. First, the program is grossly inefficient, wastes taxpayer money, and depends on voters not participating. According to the city’s election director, out of the $6 million raised this year, $1.5 million will go to administrative costs. Moreover, Seattle has 410,000 registered voters who will each receive four $25 vouchers, totaling to $41 million. However, the “democracy voucher” fund will only make $30 million by 2025. Thus, the idea depends upon only 13% of voters each year using their vouchers, which undermines the goal of “equal opportunity.”

Furthermore, by distributing vouchers in January, the vouchers will greatly benefit incumbents because new candidates do not file until May. Therefore, new candidates will start from behind and that’s assuming that money is even left in the voucher fund for new candidates. The vouchers may also encourage “bundling” where a single person or group acting as an intermediary gathers up huge amounts of money for one candidate. Although illegal in Washington, the voucher system may be vulnerable to bundling if special interest groups offer to send in the voters vouchers for them to a single candidate. So much for “strengthening democracy” and stamping out corruption.

No matter what political views one holds, it should be troubling to all Americans that a government can force you against your will to support a candidate and bankroll speech that you are against. Government cannot arbitrarily pick out a class of citizens (here property owners) and force them to bear the burden of supporting a conflicting interest group. As the U.S Supreme Court has stated it is a “bedrock principle” of the First Amendment “that, except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.” PLF will not sit idly by while the City of Seattle violates this bedrock principle by taxing property owners in order to line the pockets of politicians who directly oppose their interests. We look forward to vindicating the right of every American to support or not support political speech of their choosing.

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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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