Honest Elections: Newly Passed Bill Could Empower Marginalized Voters
By Marti Schodt
Yvonne Socolar was that kid who would stay up late to watch political debates in elementary school.
“I thought it was the coolest shit ever,” said the 24-year-old.
But when Socolar got to college, and finally had the opportunity to participate in politics and vote, something felt hollow.
“I realized I was really disillusioned with all of it. None of the politicians were really people I would vote for. They didn’t represent me, and they weren’t the people I wanted to commit my time and energy to,” said Socolar.
When Socolar moved to Seattle and began volunteering with the Honest Elections campaign — a city of Seattle bill that implements campaign funding vouchers to try to limit lobbying money in politics — she says everything just clicked.
“I got so excited about the idea of giving the power back to ordinary people, of being represented in government,” Socolar said. “You lose that excitement when there’s no way to engage.”
This past month, Seattle voters said yes to campaign finance reform by way of I-122, or the “Honest Elections” bill, drafted and put on the ballot by a cohort of organizations determined to change the game of Seattle politics.
“If we can solve the way campaigns are financed, we can solve the rest,” said Rory O’Sullivan, former chair of the Fair Elections campaign and active participant in the Honest Elections.
Honest Elections aims to bring transparency and accountability to local mayoral, attorney general, and city council campaigns, according to Alan Durning, founder and executive director of The Sightline Institute, a green-minded think tank and research facility located in Seattle. The bill will create an opt-in system that allows candidates public funding in the form of “democracy vouchers” should they choose to abide by the rules set up by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Committee.
Each registered Seattle voter will receive four democracy vouchers in the mail at the beginning of every local election cycle. Voters can sign and pledge the vouchers to the candidates of their choosing, showing their support without having to get out their checkbooks.
“I like to think of it as voters getting to choose where the first 0 of their tax money goes,” said Durning.
Sightline provided much of the research used in drafting the bill, and Durning himself coordinated the policy design.
The bill passed with roughly 60 percent of the vote, according to King County Elections, an impressive win considering the narrow failure of Proposition 1 in 2013.
“Candidates have the choice to participate, and we hope they’ll want to, that they’ll see the value in it,” said Durning.Phone bankers at the Washington Bus, an organization that encourages young people to take part in politics, call potential voters to tell them about I-122. Photo: Karter Booher
The exact mechanics of how the bill will be implemented have yet to be hammered out. The Seattle Ethics and Elections committee will spend the next year finalizing the plans and educating the public on how to use their vouchers and make their voices heard. The bill will even be translated into the top 10 most spoken languages in Seattle so everyone will have a better chance at understanding the new policies in place and the power they hold as voters.
Candidates interested in receiving the democracy vouchers would need to sign an agreement with the Ethics and Elections committee, confirming their commitment to transparency and agreeing to divulge their list of donations and backers.
The bill also contains provisions to prevent companies with large city contracts from contributing to campaigns, and requires retired politicians to take a three-year cooling off period before accepting any lobbying positions. Additionally all paid signature gatherers will need to wear tags to identify themselves as employees of a campaign rather than passionate volunteers donating their time.
Yet, the democracy vouchers are perhaps the most exciting portion of the bill, as they’re fresh and new and untested. Seattle will be the first city in the nation to try out a voucher system, an innovative approach to public funding that many residents hope will take hold across the country.
“I’m really excited about it,” said Taylor Nelson, a college student at the University of Washington. ”I think it’s a great idea with a lot of potential.