Monday, June 1, 2020
June 1, 2020

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U.S. Supreme Court declines Seattle ‘democracy vouchers’ case

Program was challenged by 2 property owners

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SEATTLE — The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a challenge to Seattle’s first-in-the-nation “democracy voucher” program for public financing of political campaigns.

The high court issued its denial Monday in a challenge brought by two local property owners who said the program forces them — through their tax dollars — to support candidates they don’t like, in violation of the First Amendment.

Seattle voters decided in 2015 to tax themselves $3 million a year; in exchange, each receives four $25 vouchers that they can donate to participating candidates in city elections. Supporters say it has boosted participation in city politics, especially among lower-income residents who previously were less likely to donate to campaigns.

“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,” said Paul Smith, vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, which supports the city’s program. “Our victory in this case protects campaign finance reform efforts around the country and helps uphold the constitutional principle of self-governance.”

During last year’s city council races, voters gave more than 98,000 vouchers totaling $2.5 million to candidates. However, fearing they would be rapidly outspent, many candidates asked to be excused from the program’s spending limits after Amazon dropped $1.5 million to back a slate of candidates it saw as business-friendly.

The state Supreme Court unanimously upheld the voucher program last year.

Further review possible

The U.S. Supreme Court has generally upheld the public financing of campaigns, within the limits of the First Amendment, saying that “public financing as a means of eliminating the improper influence of large private contributions furthers a significant governmental interest” — helping to eliminate corruption.

“Public access to elections matters, and Democracy Vouchers help give voice to those who might otherwise go unheard,” Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said in an emailed statement.

Ethan Blevins, an attorney with the libertarian-leaning Pacific Legal Foundation, which challenged the program, said he did not believe the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to review the Seattle case would be the final word on the subject. The justices are likely to have further opportunities to review such programs as other cities experiment with them, he said.

“We don’t see this as a sign that the court is uninterested in the issues raised,” Blevins said.

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