Would you run for office, if you didn’t have to raise big money from one percenters to do it? The Honest Elections Seattle Initiative is a pioneering local initiative that would provide a whole new path to office, a path through dozens of house parties and grassroots outreach, not posh downtown offices and hours of dialing for dollars. If it works in Seattle, it may spread to other places.

Last time, I described how the law’s innovative Democracy Vouchers work for you if you’re a voter. This time, I take a candidate’s eye view.

If you’re a Democracy Voucher candidate, here is what you do:

  1. Sign up. This step is easy. You sign papers at the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) pledging to abide by tight limits on total campaign spending, to forgo big money and secret money, to scrupulously avoid shady coordination with PACs or other so-called independent expenditure campaigns, and to submit to penalties for benefiting from such campaigns even if you had nothing to do with them. Basically, you agree to fund your campaign by collecting Democracy Vouchers and other small contributions.
  2. Qualify. To show you’re no vanity candidate—no GoodSpaceGuy or Mike the Mover—you collect small contributions from scores of voters and document these gifts for SEEC. To run for a district city council seat, for example, you must collect 150 contributions of $10 or more, and at least half of them must come from your district. For mayor, you need 600. (Details below in appendix 1.)
  3. Go meet voters and ask for their vouchers. Now, the fun part! You spend your time meeting voters, listen to their concerns, ask for their support, and collect their vouchers. You might do so at house parties, candidate forums, union halls, street festivals, farmers’ markets, and on hundreds of doorsteps. You might bring an iPad, too, so people can register for their electronic vouchers and assign them to you on the spot. You might also seek the support of organizations with big memberships or loyal audiences. They may turn out to be the gatekeepers to their constituents’ vouchers. (Two scenarios of Democracy Voucher campaign plans are in appendix 2.)
  4. Cash your vouchers. Vouchers are like checks, made out to your campaign and signed by voters. You redeem them at the SEEC, which will disburse your funds. Cha-ching!

Democratizing the Money Race

For you, as a candidate, the essential feature of vouchers is that they will be everywhere. They will transform every voter in the city into a prospect for an easy $100 addition to your campaign treasury. Seattle has 415,106 registered voters. 415,106! Another 90,000 adults are eligible to vote but not registered: convince them to register and they’ll become potential $100 contributors too. In short, almost everyone you meet will be a prospective donor to your campaign. These donors will be agreeable about handing you their vouchers because the vouchers are otherwise worthless. From the voter’s perspective, vouchers are Monopoly money. From yours, they are cash: you just turn them over to SEEC.

As municipal campaigns are currently run, fundraising and voter persuasion are two completely separate activities. One consists of phoning and visiting rich people and PACs to harvest $700 checks; the other involves winning influential endorsements, giving speeches, reaching out to the media, knocking on doors, shaking hands, and advertising. Democracy Vouchers more or less eliminate the former; vouchers cancel the “money primary.”

The Big Payoff

Democracy Vouchers, like the rest of Honest Elections Seattle’s lobbying, transparency, and ethics reforms, aim to fix one acute problem: the systemic corruption of politics with money. Seattle City Hall is not yet as bad as the US Congress. It’s not hopelessly inundated with political cash. But it needs protection from DC-style excesses, and Seattle’s elected leaders do pay more attention to the developers and city contractors who fund their campaigns than they pay to ordinary citizens.

I’m not blaming city officials. I like and support most of them, personally. But current rules make them answerable to the donor class. If you want to rise in politics in the era of Citizens United, you have no real choice. To raise the vaults of cash needed to compete, you must spend much of your time fundraising, which basically mandates talking to rich people. Month after month, year after year, you talk to rich people, and not surprisingly, you gradually assimilate their views.

The solution to this systemic corruption is to clear a different path to office, a path that does not traverse the terrain of the one percent. Instead, on this path, you travel among ordinary voters. Ordinary voters are the donor class in Honest Elections. Democracy Vouchers give every single voter—house cleaner or business executive, fast-food worker or bank president—a real voice.

“Democracy Vouchers give every single voter—house cleaner or business executive, fast-food worker or bank president—a real voice.”
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Appendix 1: More about Democracy Vouchers

Democracy Vouchers are valid for you as a candidate if you are running for mayor, city attorney, or city council (district or at-large). The Honest Elections pledge includes participating in at least three public debates during the primary and, if you win, three more during the general election. It also specifies qualifying thresholds, contribution and spending limits, and special rules concerning independent expenditures.

Qualifying thresholds

To qualify as a candidate for mayor, you must gather 600 contributions from Seattle residents (not PACs, corporations, or other “corporate persons”). For an at-large city council seat, the number is 400. For city attorney, it’s 150. For a district city council seat, you’ll need 150 donors, of whom at least 75 must be district residents. The minimum required qualifying contribution is $10, and the maximum is the contribution limit.

Contribution limits

The Honest Elections Seattle initiative lowers the overall limit on contributions from $700 per contributor per election cycle to $500, indexed for inflation, for all candidates. If you opt into the Democracy Voucher program, you must agree to a lower contribution limit of $250 (not counting vouchers), except for mayoral candidates, for whom the limit remains $500.

Spending limits

If you participate in the Democracy Voucher program, you must agree to strict limits on your overall campaign spending. If you’re running for mayor, you may not spend more than $400,000 in the primary race or $800,000 total. In an at-large city council race, you may not raise or spend more than $300,000 (the first half, at most, in the primary). If you’re running for city attorney or a district council seat, you are limited to $150,000. These limits are at the high end of campaign spending in Seattle elections in 2013, 2011, and 2009; they’re set at the high end so that you, as a candidate, know that Democracy Vouchers can fund a competitive campaign.

Schedule

You may begin collecting qualifying contributions sixteen months before a general election, in July. You may qualify officially in January of election year, which is when SEEC will distribute Democracy Vouchers to voters. You must qualify by May 31 of election year. SEEC will redeem vouchers and disburse funds to you at least twice a month. You can collect vouchers before you qualify, but you cannot redeem them.

Non-participating Opponents

If your opponent is not participating in the voucher program and spends more than the limit for your race, SEEC will release you from your spending limit. You can keep collecting vouchers up to the limit. Then, you can start collecting contributions under the same rules as your opponent. In other words, you can start dialing for $500 checks.

Independent Expenditures

Independent expenditures (IEs) are campaigns run by third parties that attempt to influence the outcome of an election. In 2013, a trade union ran one in support of Mike McGinn’s bid for reelection as mayor and another supported his challenger Ed Murray. IEs sidestep normal campaign regulations because they are purportedly independent from a candidate’s campaign. In practice, they are typically run by deep-pocketed interests and are intended to curry favor with a candidate.

  • If you’re in the Democracy Voucher program, you have to keep extra far from IEs. For example, you may not help raise funds even by appearing as an event speaker for an organization that’s likely to run an independent expenditure in any city candidate race.

    Moreover, if you benefit from an IE (either an IE that promotes you or an IE that attacks your opponent) and if the IE’s spending plus your own spending exceeds your spending limit, you’re in a bad place: SEEC will release your opponent from his or her spending limit. For example, if a millionaire friend of yours spends $100,000 on ads in support of your candidacy for mayor, and you’ve already committed $750,000, the sum of the two exceeds the spending limit, which is $800,000. As a result, SEEC will let your opponent collect vouchers up to $800,000 and then start dialing for dollars. That’s a bad deal for you; you’ll probably be furious at your millionaire friend.

    This IE “trigger” serves two purposes: first, it reassure candidates that they’ll be able to punch back if an IE intervenes against them. Second, it creates a strong incentive for candidates to discourage IEs. You’ll put the word out to all your millionaire friends that anyone who funds an IE will be in the dog house. Because most IEs are motivated by a desire to curry favor with a candidate, the policy will dissuade many IEs.

    Penalties

    If you break the rules, you’re in deep trouble. If you try to buy vouchers, for example, you could go to prison. If your campaign breaks other rules, you might have to give SEEC all the money back.

    Appendix 2. Sample Campaign Plans

    Scenario 1: First-time candidate, district city council seat

    If you’re a first-time candidate for a district city council seat, your campaign fundraising plan might look like this: The Honest Elections spending limit for you is $150,000, but you can run a competitive campaign for less. You might aim to raise $100,000, which is enough for a paid campaign manager, lots of flyers for doorbelling and community forums, and two campaign mailings to likely voter in your district. You’ll raise the first $1,500 qualifying ($10 x 150 contributors), and you’ll probably raise much more than that because your friends and supporters will want to give you their vouchers plus some money. Let’s say you collect $20,000 from qualifying and other money contributions. The other $80,000 is your voucher target.

    Voucher funds Campaign Strategy
    $20,000 Your list. Contact friends and allies via phone, email, or social media. (200 people x $100 of vouchers each)
    $20,000 House parties. 20 parties, 20 guests each, collect half their vouchers. (20 parties x 20 guests x $50)
    $20,000 Doorbelling. Four hours a day doorbelling and shaking hands at farmers’ markets and other events. Average four vouchers/hour. (10 weeks x 5 days x 4 hours x $100/hour)
    $10,000 Allies’ events. Membership organizations such as trade unions, business associations, neighborhood groups, churches, and social clubs host events for your campaign or for candidate forums, where you can speak and collect vouchers. (10 events x 20 contributors x $50 of vouchers each)
    $10,000 Unsolicited. Media coverage, social media by your supporters, and the ripple effects of your campaign will generate enthusiasm. Some people will send you some vouchers. (200 people x $50 of vouchers)
    $80,000 total Approximately 1,200 people will have given you some or all of their vouchers.

    Scenario 2. Veteran Candidate for Mayor

    If you’re running for mayor, your campaign fundraising plan will be bigger, but presumably, you’re no political novice. The Honest Elections spending limit for mayor is $800,000. If you expect a hard-fought race and want enough budget for a campaign staff, lots of mailers, flyers, and yard signs, plus radio, television, and online ads, you may aim to raise the full amount. That’s an ample but not excessive budget. In 2013, challenger (and winner) Ed Murray spent $880,000, while incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn spent about $500,000. In 2009, then-winner Mike McGinn spent less than $250,000. You’ll raise at least the first $6,000 as you qualify ($10 x 600 contributors), but you’ll probably want to raise more than $10 from each of these early contributors. Perhaps you’ll raise an average of $50 each from your 600 qualifying contributors, for $30,000 total. Your supporters outside of the city may chip in another $20,000, and perhaps you’ll raise another $50,000 in cash and kind inside the city over the course of the campaign. That’s $100,000.

    Your voucher goal, therefore, is $700,000. One scenario for getting them follows.

    Voucher funds Campaign Strategy
    $60,000 Qualifying. Collect vouchers from people who give you qualifying contributions. (600 people x $100 each.) You can only redeem these vouchers after you qualify.
    $250,000 Your list. Solicited by email, mail, or phone bank from your own list of 5,000 supporters (your mailing list from past campaigns plus new sign-ups from events, social media, and media coverage). (2,500 people x $100 each)
    $125,000 Campaign kick-off and house parties. Your team organizes a big campaign kick-off event, plus 25 well-attended house parties during election year. (Kick-off with 250 guests x $100 each plus 25 parties x 40 guests x $100)
    $125,000 Receptions. Membership organizations that endorse you, such as trade unions, business associations, neighborhood groups, churches, and social clubs, host events for you or for candidate forums. You speak and collect vouchers. (50 events x 25 contributors x $100 of vouchers each)
    $100,000 Peer-to-peer. You ask everyone who gives you a voucher to ask friends and relations to also give a voucher. (One additional voucher for each five vouchers in previous three categories.)
    $40,000 Unsolicited. Media coverage and the ripple effects of your campaign will generate enthusiasm. Some people will send vouchers. (800 people x $50 of vouchers)
    $700,000 total Approximately 7,400 people will have given you some or all of their vouchers.

    Is collecting some or all the vouchers from 7,400 people achievable? Yes. In 2013, Ed Murray’s mayoral campaign recruited about 3,000 contributors. Collecting vouchers will be much easier than raising actual money. In fact, many people will be looking for someone to give their vouchers to.