From the outside, it may look like this has been a boring year for Honest Elections Seattle, but in fact, it’s been anything but.
Things have seemed quiet on the Honest Elections Seattle (HES) front lately. After the flurry of excitement over its landslide victory last November and the attendant thrill of Seattle’s leadership on campaign finance reform, the media attention died down, and most Seattleites got back to their cynical norm about the influence of Big Money in politics, especially as the US presidential race got underway this year.
But a handful of Emerald City residents have been hard at work over the intervening months helping the potent seed of HES germinate as a full-fledged act on the law books, growing its roots to establish the program of Democracy Vouchers and other new regulations. Seattleites still won’t see many signs of this behind-the-scenes work until January, when vouchers will appear in Seattle voters’ mailboxes and city campaigns pick up speed; yet much has been happening.
Honest Elections Seattle set a tall order for the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC): establish a first-of-its-kind Democracy Voucher public funding program—and do it in 12 months. Oh, and also implement a number of other HES-mandated reforms to campaign finance in the city of Seattle, which took effect as soon as the law passed. SEEC staff and commissioners have been working overtime to do just that, and their work is paying off.
So what’s been happening behind the scenes? Here are a few updates:
1. Campaign contributions have been more limited since January.
Candidates for Seattle’s November 2017 city office elections could legally begin fundraising starting this past January. All campaign fundraising is subject to the new regulations stipulated in Honest Elections Seattle. These rules reduce contribution limits from individuals to any one candidate from $700 to $500, and prohibit contributions from lobbyist employers and city contractors.
2. Current elected officials reported their net worth.
A less trumpeted measure of HES requires all Seattle elected officials, as well as candidates running for city office, to file estimates of their net worth with the City Clerk. Current elected officials had to comply with this mandate by April 15th this year. The Seattle City Council Insight blog published the city councilors’ reports, revealing that four of Seattle’s nine city council members are millionaires. (Considering Seattle’s inflated housing market and that all council members are homeowners whose home values would factor into their net worth reports, that news may not be not much of a surprise.)
3. Voucher candidates may announce their HES participation and start gathering support.
Though Seattle residents won’t receive their vouchers until January 2017, candidates interested in participating in the voucher program were able to announce their intent to participate beginning in July. By making this announcement, candidates agree to abide by program requirements, including stricter contribution limits.
Candidates must also collect signatures of support and small donations from Seattle residents to qualify for the program. For candidates for the two at-large City Council seats up for election next year, this provision means collecting 400 signatures of support and small donations; the bar is a little lower for City Attorney candidates, who must collect 150 signatures and donations to qualify.
Though no candidates have announced their participation yet, be on the lookout for candidates eager for your support. Or consider running yourself!
4. SEEC has staffed up and initiated community outreach.
SEEC has taken on three new staff members to help run the Democracy Voucher program, including program manager René LeBeau. She served as King County’s Ballot Processing Program Manager for nearly 10 years before coming to SEEC.
In addition, SEEC hired two staff members devoted to public outreach for the voucher program. Their goal is to educate Seattle residents about vouchers and make participation easy.
5. SEEC has convened a community advisory group to guide rulemaking and ensure broad accessibility.
As part of their outreach efforts, SEEC staff have gathered a small group of interested parties to offer input on some of the voucher program rulemaking questions related to community access.
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The diverse group includes members from organizations involved with the initiative last year, representatives of some of Seattle’s minority populations eager to see Democracy Vouchers amplify their voices in the city, and a former campaign manager who knows the ins and outs of candidate concerns. The group meets twice a month and offers commission staff input on how to make the program rollout reflect Seattle’s diversity. (Full disclosure: Sightline Institute is also represented.)
6. A new website explains HES for voters and candidates.
As another part of its community outreach, SEEC launched a new section of its website last month to explain Democracy Vouchers. The site covers frequently asked questions from the perspectives of Seattle residents and prospective candidates.
Soon the site will include a list of candidates who have qualified for the program, and starting in January, the site will publicly track all voucher donations made to qualified candidates.
7. Whether vouchers will go electronic for 2017 is still undecided.
One question the initiative left open was whether Seattle residents would be able to assign their vouchers to qualified candidates in the 2017 election online, or whether online vouchers would not come until 2019.
The electronic system carries with it a host of security challenges, which have been top of mind for SEEC and its contractors in the last few months. Any online system must be able to, among other things, verify the identity of anyone assigning a voucher online and also be secure enough that no one can forge another person’s signature or identity.
At the moment, it remains to be seen whether Seattleites will be able to go online next year and send their vouchers to their favorite candidates or will have to wait until 2019 to get their cell phones and tablets involved in local elections. Paper vouchers, though, will be ready to go from the very beginning of 2017.
8. SEEC is hashing out the nitty-gritty rulemaking.
Finally, one of the commission’s main jobs this year is writing and approving the rules that will govern the details of the Voucher Program. These rules includes everything from who can collect vouchers to exactly how many days a candidate has to return excess voucher funds after an election.
Sightline has sent commission staff a series of policy memos on rulemaking questions. We’ve been busy ferreting out best practices from similar public funding programs and offering suggestions on policy design and strategy to make Seattle’s Voucher Program as effective and easy to use as possible.
Seattle is on its way to empowering everyday people in its elections
From the outside, it may look like this has been a boring year for Honest Elections Seattle, but in fact, it’s been anything but. Of course, the real fun won’t start until Democracy Vouchers go out after the new year, but meanwhile, Seattleites can thank the attentive “gardeners” at SEEC and participating community organizations for nourishing the seed of Seattle’s dream to limit the influence of big money in local politics and empower more people in shaping the city’s future.