What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Impeachment Inquiries

November 15, 2019

Watch

Seattle candidates find funding through public financing

Correction: Amazon contributed $1.45 million to a political action committee sponsored by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, not $2 million as reported in the video. The error was due to a discrepancy between Washington state and the city of Seattle data.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Megan Thompson:

    This Tuesday's election day marks the end of one of the most hotly contested city council races in Seattle's history. A record 55 candidates competed in all seven districts during the primary — almost 20 more than in the last such election in 2015.

    And that's not the only figure that's gone up. The number of individuals donating to those candidates went from less than 19,000 in 2015 to more than 50,000 this year. That no doubt is partly due to a unique public financing program in Seattle — the only one of its kind in the country. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano visited the city to learn more.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    It's nearing the end of a long, hard-fought election season in Seattle, and in the second district, two candidates are in the final push to win a seat on the city council. Former Seattle Human Rights Commissioner Tammy Morales—who spoke with us at a local bakery—is campaigning on the rising cost of housing that's pushing many people out of the city.

  • Tammy Morales:

    We have to stop the displacement that's happening, and really focus on building community wealth, and building shared ownership of assets in the city. So those are the kinds of issues that I'm interested in.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Her opponent is Mark Solomon, a crime prevention coordinator with the Seattle police department and a retired air force reserve colonel. He says his primary focus is on public safety.

  • Mark Solomon:

    It's the thing that I hear the most concern about, you know, in the district is people not feeling safe, feeling like our police department is understaffed. At the same time, wanting to have a good relationship with the police department, where officers can integrate with community and interact in more meaningful ways, and not just in enforcement ways, but to build community trust.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Two candidates with two visions. But one thing they have in common is how their campaigns are funded.

  • Mark Solomon:

    Are you familiar with the Democracy Voucher program?

  • Voter:

    Yeah.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    By getting these signatures, Solomon just earned $100 for his campaign—without taking any money out of the voter's pocket. It's all thanks to a unique campaign funding method—one that Seattle voters passed through a ballot initiative in 2015—to try to even the fundraising playing field. It involves what are known as "Democracy Vouchers". It works like this: each local election cycle, all registered voters receive four $25 vouchers that they can donate to up to four city council candidates who have volunteered to participate in the program. It's funded through an annual $3 million property tax—which the city says costs the average Seattle homeowner about $8 per year.

  • Wayne Barnett:

    We are the very first city in the country to adopt the program. So we are a model for the—for the world.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Wayne Barnett is the executive director of Seattle's Ethics and Elections Commission—which runs the voucher program. He says it has two goals: one is to increase the number of candidates by making it possible to raise a lot of money without connections to deep-pocketed donors.

  • Wayne Barnett:

    And the second is to broaden the base of contributors. You know, I think up to that time, we saw that roughly only 1-2% of Seattleites ever contributed to a local campaign. And I think the idea was to really broaden that base.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Seattle's city council elections are non-partisan. Candidates in each of the city's seven districts compete first in a primary election. Then the top two finishers face off in the general election for the council seat. Nearly all of the candidates in the general this year are using Democracy Vouchers. Mark Solomon says he wouldn't have gotten into the race without them.

  • Mark Solomon:

    Quite frankly I don't know if I would have been able to raise the funds to be able to, you know, participate in this process. The vouchers, in my mind, do level the playing field in many ways.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Tammy Morales says because of the vouchers, it's been different campaigning with low-income voters than it used to be.

  • Tammy Morales:

    I could knock on someone's door, and really have a meaningful conversation, and I knew they were interested. What I was s—saying resonated, but I wasn't about to ask them for a donation. With the Democracy Voucher Program, there was a way for them to contribute and invest in my campaign, and so it—it was huge.

  • Tammy Morales:

    Hi, there!

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    So far, Morales has raised over $126,000 through the voucher program. That's about 67% of her campaign funding. Solomon has raised over $111,000—about 75% of his funding. Both have also accepted individual cash donations, but—like all the program's participants—they are subject to spending limits.

    The candidates using vouchers this year can't spend more than $150,000—in combined cash and vouchers—over the course of their campaigns, unless they can show their opponents or their opponents' surrogates are spending more. Candidates not in the program can spend as much money as they want. Some voters—like gift shop owner, Karla Esquivel—say the Democracy Voucher Program makes them feel more engaged in this year's election. She donated the money from all her vouchers to Morales.

  • Karla Esquivel:

    Someone like me—a woman of color, business owner, a single mom who doesn't have the extra funds to necessarily donate to candidates like I'd like to—that gives me an opportunity to put my money where I would like to see it spent.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But the program has had some unintended consequences. So far this year, vouchers account for about $2.4 million in contributions. But independent political groups—which are not subject to the same spending limits as candidates—have raised more than $8 million. Wayne Barnett believes that Democracy Vouchers may be one of the factors that increased outside spending—because candidates who couldn't normally raise large sums can now do so through the program, large donors are trying to out-spend them through political action committees. In fact, 2019 has seen more expenditures by independent groups in the city than in the last two elections combined. Amazon—whose corporate headquarters is in Seattle—alone has contributed $2 million to a PAC sponsored by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. The result of all this outside money is that both Morales and Solomon's campaigns had their spending caps lifted due to independent expenditures in their race. While PACS supporting Morales have spent about $30,000, those supporting Solomon have spent over $230,000. Almost two-thirds of that came from the Chamber of Commerce's PAC. Morales says that outside fundraising has undermined the supposed level playing field for candidates in the Democracy Voucher Program.

  • Tammy Morales:

    It's unprecedented how much money is being spent for this city council race. Not just my race, but for all the other districts as well. This Democracy Voucher Program was intended to try to reduce the influence of that kind of outside money on our local government. Didn't work. I think because of the way this race has turned out—because of all of that outside money that has come in, our council members are starting to look at how they can regulate individual contributions into those big, corporate PACs.

  • Mark Solomon:

    I have no control over how those funds are being spent. It has not affected how I'm running my campaign. My campaign is funded primarily through individual contributions and contributions from—through the Democracy Vouchers.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    We asked Wayne Barnett about PACs outspending candidates using Democracy Vouchers.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Does that—put other candidates participating in the democracy voucher program at a disadvantage in any way?

  • Wayne Barnett:

    I think that depends on how you look at it. 12 of the 14 candidates in the general election are participating in the program. So clearly, candidates don't view it as—as an impediment to their running a credible race.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Even though she feels that there are some problems the program needs to address, Morales remains enthusiastic about Democracy Vouchers.

  • Tammy Morales:

    Oh, my gosh. It's a game changer. It really is, because that was more time to go knock doors, and talk to people. It was more time thinking about policy positions. It was more time meeting with community leaders.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Mark Solomon agrees.

  • Mark Solomon:

    Going to the doors, engaging with people, asking them what they're—what they are concerned about

  • Mark Solomon:

    I'm Mark Solomon. I'm running for Seattle City Council.

  • Mark Solomon:

    And then letting them know about my—me, some of the approaches that I have, and asking if they've used their Democracy Vouchers. Some have said, "Yes, I've already sent them in. I've already used them." Or others have said, "Oh, no, I still have those." It's like, "Would you be willing to—help the campaign by signing those vouchers over?" And many have said, "Yes," and that's been—it's been wonderful.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest