The board game Monopoly is simple enough for most nine-year-olds to master quickly. The rules of the game, however, run to eight pages, and you’d never hand them to your third grader and expect her to grasp how the play unfolds. It’s better to sit her down with some friends and walk through the steps, referring to the rules when questions arise.
Similarly, despite many people’s perception that Honest Elections Seattle’s system of Democracy Vouchers is complicated, it is actually simplicity itself, even if the official text of Initiative 122 approaches 9,000 words. The best way to understand it is to walk through the steps of the game, not to read the rulebook. I’ve already walked through Honest Elections Seattle from the perspectives of voters and candidates. In this article, I do the same from the perspective of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), which will implement the law if voters approve it in November. First, though, some context.
Democracy Vouchers Are Simple
Democracy Vouchers, like Monopoly, seem complicated only if you’re trying to understand them by reading the rules. In practice, they are a surprisingly simple program, much simpler than most public programs that big cities administer.
Think of Seattle’s curbside recycling program, with its Byzantine sorting rules. Tens of thousands of people have internalized distinctions such as these: plastic grocery check-out and dry-cleaner bags are recyclable if they’re clean, dry and bundled, but plastic produce bags are not; paper products with food on them are compostable unless they are wax-coated, in which case they can be rinsed and recycled; jar lids are recyclable but only if their diameter is three inches or greater. Recycling is complicated; yet we all do it daily without much thought.
Think of Seattle’s heavily used library system, where by logging in online, I can request a copy of any of millions of books, magazines, sound or video recording from any branch in the city. It will be delivered to my neighborhood branch within days. Once it arrives, I will get an email notice, and it will be held and released only to me. Libraries are complicated but it’s a breeze to get the books I want.
Think of Seattle’s distribution of thousands of rain barrels citywide or its underwriting of scores of rain gardens to clean polluted runoff before it contaminates Puget Sound. Or the LED lightbulbs that Seattle City Light is currently mailing to hundreds of city homes to prime the pump for the next generation of energy-efficient technology. These programs are complicated but work smoothly and effectively.
Walk into any city office, in Seattle or anywhere, knock on a door and ask the person you meet what she or he works on. Odds are good that her or his program is vastly more complicated (and expensive—the topic of my next article) than Democracy Vouchers.
Democracy Vouchers are simple: Voters get them in the mail and give them to candidates they support; candidates collect them from ordinary voters and stop spending the bulk of their time talking with rich people.
“Democracy Vouchers are simple: Voters get them in the mail and give them to candidates they support; candidates collect them from ordinary voters and stop spending their time talking with rich people.”
Democracy Vouchers are as easy to use as coupons or gift cards. Everyone uses those, and few know the behind-the-scenes mechanics by which they operate. No one needs to—unless they work in coupons or gift cards. If you’re uninterested in the behind-the-scenes mechanics of Democracy Vouchers, you may stop reading now.
If you do want to understand the behind-the-scenes mechanics of Democracy Vouchers, though, whether because you’re curious or because you work for SEEC, read on for a primer, written as if you were the director of SEEC.
2016: Program Design
Your first order of business, as head of SEEC, is to staff up! Three full-time permanent hires ought to suffice: an Honest Elections Seattle director with a background in law and policy, who will lead the overall program, manage the regulatory and planning tasks, and lead enforcement; one staffer to promote the program with the public and manage candidate participation; and one in charge of customer service with voucher holders and overseeing voucher processing. During crunch periods, you may need additional staff to actually process vouchers, just as elections agencies hire temporary employees for Election Day.
Part of your year in 2016 will go to writing detailed regulations required by I-122. Your team will fill in the legal fine print on questions such as exactly what membership organizations may and may not do to encourage their constituents to direct vouchers to endorsed candidates and how much money candidates may loan temporarily to their own campaigns.
Your team and its printers and contractors will also design the paper vouchers, the mailers that carry them, and the collateral educational materials. You’ll set up reporting systems, in coordination with the state Public Disclosure Commission, to ensure transparency. You’ll work out the mechanics of verifying voter signatures on vouchers, likely by contracting with King County Elections, which already verifies voter signatures on ballot envelopes. It does so on a scale that dwarfs the voucher program. Most importantly, you’ll sign a contract with an online-voting company (such as Everyone Counts, which already runs overseas voting for King County Elections), gift-card firm, or other company that will design and run the online voucher system, allowing voters to use either their paper vouchers or digital equivalents. You’ll educate voters and candidates and reassure candidates that adequate voucher funds will be available by setting a generous program budget for the 2017 election.
You’ll launch Democracy Vouchers in races for city attorney and two at-large city council seats. The initiative exempts the mayor’s race just this once, so that ample funds can accumulate in the program’s kitty, voters can get familiar with vouchers, and the city can perfect its systems in low-money races.
In January, you’ll mail four $25 Democracy Vouchers to each of the 415,000 registered Seattle voters, along with a flier that explains how they work. You’ll also probably want to roll out a public education campaign—PSAs, utility bill stuffers, mailers—in several languages.
We're in our Spring Fund Drive—make a gift now to support more research like this!
By late January, you’ll probably be reviewing applications from candidates seeking to qualify for the program. Your team will need to confirm their qualifying contributions, such as 150 contributions of $10 or more from adult Seattle residents to qualify for City Attorney.
Next, you’ll start to receive vouchers for redemption—the first of what will likely amount to 100,000 to 200,000 you’ll receive in an election year. Your team will scan them and forward the scans in batches to King County Elections, which will check the signatures against its voter registration database, just as it does for ballot envelopes and petitions. Verification costs less than a dime per signature. On average, you’ll be processing 500 to 1,000 vouchers per workday, which is probably a comfortable work load for one staff member. Of course, many vouchers will be assigned online, which will save your staff time. Aside from signature verification, all you need to do with a voucher is record who gave it to whom, publish the information online, and tally it for the next disbursement of checks. At least twice a month, you’ll issue checks to candidates.
“Aside from signature verification, all you need to do with a voucher is record who gave it to whom, publish the information online, and tally it for the next disbursement of checks.”
All year long, you’ll have questions to answer from voters, candidates, and the media. You’ll issue vouchers to newly registered voters. You’ll check complaints of fraud and abuse, which may come from the media, campaigns, and citizen whistleblowers, thanks to the way Honest Elections Seattle crowdsources enforcement by providing full transparency in voucher distribution and faster-than-ever disclosure of financial contributions. You’ll enforce Honest Elections Seattle’s bans on fundraising for independent expenditure campaigns and its bans on contributions from big-money city contractors and those who hire lobbyists.
You’ll track spending by campaigns, including third-party independent expenditure campaigns. You’ll vigorously enforce spending limits, impose stiff penalties on those who break the rules, and make full use of your power under Honest Elections Seattle to release candidates from spending limits when their opponents are benefiting from independent expenditures.
2018: Evaluate and Adjust.
Honest Elections Seattle authorizes SEEC to adjust most of the financial variables in the Democracy Voucher program to better meet the goals of empowering voters and connecting candidates with their constituents.
If independent expenditures (IEs) increase, for example, you can raise the campaign spending limits, thereby diluting IEs’ influence. If too few candidates are using Democracy Vouchers, you can sweeten the pot by raising the spending limits or increasing the value of each voucher. If, on the other hand, most candidates are participating and they’re raising their entire spending limit in days or weeks rather than months of grassroots campaigning, you might do the opposite. You might give fewer vouchers or reduce their value. If the qualifying thresholds are too onerous or too low, you might adjust those too. If candidates are still spending their days dialing for dollars, you might lower the $250 contribution limit ($500 for mayor) further. The years between municipal elections are times to study and revise the program, by poring over statistics, surveying voters, holding hearings, and interviewing candidates and prospective candidates.
Once your revisions are done, you will publish the new rules, educate candidates and the public, and gear up for another round.
“No one will worry about the length of the rule book, because everyone will understand how Honest Elections Seattle has put ordinary voters back in charge of local democracy.”
In 2019, district city council races will be on the ballot. You’ll have twice as many races to manage as in 2017 and more money flowing through the system. Still, your tasks will be the same: distribute vouchers, qualify candidates, redeem vouchers, monitor campaigns, enforce the law.
Two years later, in 2021, after another round of revisions, you’ll do it again for the mayor’s race, which generates the biggest campaign budgets in Seattle politics. By then, everyone will know how Democracy Vouchers work. No one will worry about the length of the rule book, because everyone will understand how Honest Elections Seattle has put ordinary voters back in charge of local democracy. The dynamics of Democracy Vouchers will seem as obvious to everyone as the rules of Monopoly do today.
Perhaps Democracy Vouchers will then spread around the world just as Monopoly has.