Cash-laden District 3 race brings campaign finance initiative into focus

Not a democracy voucher

Not a democracy voucher

A Seattle ballot initiative that proposes to dramatically change how local candidates raise money could not have come at a more fitting time. In the final weeks of this year’s historic district elections for City Council, campaign cash is dominating the conversation, with the Council District 3 race leading the way.

Had I-122 been in place this year, spending by District 3 candidates could have been cut by half.

The race to represent Capitol Hill, the Central District and a handful of other neighborhoods has become the most monied City Council race this year. With $394,256 raised as of Wednesday, Socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant may have raised more than any other City Council candidate in Seattle history. She may have also broken the record for the most individual donors at 3,136. Challenger Pamela Banks isn’t far behind, with $347,254 raised through 1,276 individual donors, according to city campaign finance data.

The Honest Elections initiative asks voters to enact a property tax levy to fund a voluntary public financing system of giving registered voters four $25 “democracy vouchers” that could then be given to candidates. Participating candidates would be limited to the following spending limits:

  • Mayor: $400,000 for the primary, and $800,000 total
  • At-large City Council: $150,000 for the primary election, and $300,000 total
  • District City Council: $75,000 for the primary election and $150,000 total

The measure would also reduce the maximum individual campaign contribution from $700 to $500.

Sawant’s record breaking grassroots campaign, which rejects corporate donations, has been cited by some as an illustration of why the city doesn’t need the Honest Elections initiative. Speaking at Wednesday’s Seattle Process comedy show, Sawant said the District 3 election only proved that Seattle needs to embrace campaign finance reform. She says the fact that Banks was able to raise nearly as much money with far fewer donors proves the need for reform. Banks also support I-122.

Proponents of the initiative say it will level the playing field and force candidates to spend more time soliciting campaign donations from a wider pool of voters. Opponents of I-122, which include two former Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission chairs, say the measure is poorly written and will allow candidates to take democracy vouchers while benefiting from an unlimited amount of money through political action committees.

This year’s District 3 race has already become a focal point for PAC funds. Last week Neighbors for Banks, a Puyallup, Pierce County-based independent-expenditure committee, filed paperwork and reported $10,500 contributions in one day. Banks has denounced the group and said she was unaware of it when it formed. A group called ProgressiveSeattlePAC has raised $15,423 to support Sawant’s campaign.

If you have more questions, Honest Elections Seattle will be holding a Reddit AMA next week.

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7 thoughts on “Cash-laden District 3 race brings campaign finance initiative into focus

  1. I’m certainly not telling anyone how to vote on this issue. I am urging every voter to read the voters pamphlet material on this initiative before deciding if you are for or against it. It ain’t all chocolate and roses.

  2. I don’t quite understand how I-122 is supposed to work. It is financed via a property tax increase. But not every voter is going to use the four $25 vouchers to donate to a candidate. What happens to the unused cash which was collected from property owners but which is not spent? Is this money going to be diverted to some other use?

      • There aren’t a lot of financing options when you run an initiative. It’s not like we can implement an income tax just for Seattle…

    • Unused money will remain in the fund initially, to accommodate the next election cycle. However, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission will be tasked with adjusting the levy as needed–if the program is over-funded, they’ll lower the rate accordingly.

      • I hope you’re right, but I’m skeptical. Lowering a tax rate is about as likely as lowering rents. Politicians will always find a way to spend the money they have collected.

    • There’s not likely to be any unused cash, because the initiative raises only $3mm to pay for $100 Democracy Vouchers for 414,000 voters.

      The initiative says vouchers won’t be redeemable once they run out of money. What this means is that only the first 7% of vouchers redeemed are actually worth anything.