Supreme Court Declines to Strike Down Seattle Campaign Finance Voucher System

March 30, 2020 by Dan McCue
The Supreme Court building. March 4, 2020. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a challenge to Seattle’s “Democracy Voucher Program,” leaving in place the city’s public financing program for local elections.

Though the justices offered no explanation for their decision not to weigh in on the case, their denial of review leaves in place a Washington Superior Court ruling that dismissed a taxpayer challenge to the program.

The underlying case is Elster v. City of Seattle, in which two Seattle property owners aimed to have the program struck down as unconstitutional.

Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved a public referendum on the voucher program in 2015 and it went into effect two years later. It offers any eligible adult city resident who is a U.S. citizen four $25 vouchers that they can then give to the qualified local political candidates of their choosing.

The money to fund the program comes from a special tax on property.

Prior to the vote on the referendum, it was touted as “giving more people an opportunity to have their voices heard in our democracy,” and as “vital to ensure the people of Seattle have equal opportunity to participate in political campaigns and be heard by candidates, [and] to strengthen democracy.”

But Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon, who own property in Seattle, argued the law creating the program effectively forced them to fund other individual’s private speech, violating their First Amendment rights.

“The bottom line here is that the First Amendment includes the right to speak but also includes the right not to speak. You should have a right not to speak,” said Ethan Blevins, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, shortly after the lawsuit was filed.

A local trial court ruled against the taxpayers, as did the Washington Supreme Court on appeal in July 2019.

The state Supreme Court noted that the program “resembles other content-neutral ways the government facilitates political speech, for example, when the government distributes voters’ pamphlets.”

According to the University of Washington’s Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology, a total of 20,727 Seattle residents used their vouchers to contribute to local candidates in 2017.

In addition to increasing the absolute number of city residents who contributed, Seattle’s voucher program attracted a more diverse makeup of donors to local campaigns, the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center said.

Compared to individuals giving a private cash contribution in Seattle’s 2017 election, voucher users were more likely to be in the low-to-middle income bracket and to reside in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Further, the population of voucher donors contained a higher share of minority groups and residents under the age of 30 than the cash contributor pool, the Center said.

On Monday, Paul Smith, vice president of the Campaign Legal Center, which filed a brief in support of the city, said the Supreme Court was right to leave the lower court’s decision in place.

“Seattle’s innovative program loosens the stranglehold that large donors have had over the terms of political debate by giving a more diverse pool of people an opportunity to have their voices heard in politics,” Smith said. “Our victory in this case protects campaign finance reform efforts around the country and helps uphold the constitutional principle of self-governance. Five years ago, Seattle citizens sent a clear message at the polls: a citizen’s lack of wealth should not exclude them from participation in the process by which candidates fund campaigns to run for public office. It is nice to see the misguided challenge to that decision come to an end.”

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