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Seattle Gives Voters Money to Support Candidates

In this photo taken Monday, June 10, 2019, Seattle City Council candidate Pat Murakami, right, looks on as voter Lashaun Hartfield signs a voucher for Murakami's campaign in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Seattle Gives Voters Money to Support Candidates
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On a warm spring morning in the city of Seattle, Washington, City Council candidate Pat Murakami walks from house to house. Murakami greets voters in an economically-mixed neighborhood.

It is a tradition for political candidates in the United States to meet voters and ask for their votes. For Murakami, it is also a way for her to ask for money in a special campaign financing program in Seattle.

Under the program, the city mails each voter four $25 “Democracy Vouchers” that they can give to City Council or city attorney candidates. Voters can give the vouchers to one candidate, split them among different candidates, or choose not to donate. The money from vouchers not used by voters remains with the city.

“I would have been a complete non-contender without the program,” Murakami said of her first race in 2017. She beat six other primary candidates before losing in the general election.

In this photo taken Monday, June 10, 2019, Seattle City Council candidate Pat Murakami, center, talks with voters in a coffee shop about her campaign in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
In this photo taken Monday, June 10, 2019, Seattle City Council candidate Pat Murakami, center, talks with voters in a coffee shop about her campaign in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

During the 2017 election in Seattle, there were 15 primary candidates in the City Council race. The candidates received $1.1 million from the voucher program. Nearly half of them said they would not have run without money from the vouchers.

This year, 72 candidates registered to compete for seven seats. That made the City Council race the most competitive in more than 15 years.

Supporters say the voucher program brings in candidates who otherwise would not consider running for office. And it forces politicians to pay attention to people who donate small amounts of money.

“It gives candidates the chance to say, ‘I’m going to raise my money by speaking to my constituents,’ rather than dialing for dollars to big out-of-state donors,” said Ian Vandewalker. He is a campaign finance expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

A University of Washington study also found that Seattle voters were more likely to vote if they donate their vouchers for candidates in the city’s elections.

Seattle’s public campaign financing program is one of at least eight programs started by local governments around the U.S. since 2015.

Now entering its second election, Seattle’s program is getting national attention. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a Democratic presidential candidate, proposes a similar program for federal elections.

She has said a federal campaign financing system modeled on the Seattle program could provide $200 for each voter in what she called “Democracy Dollars.” Voters could give the dollars to candidates in presidential and congressional races.

Vandewalker of the Brennan Center, however, said expanding a local voter campaign finance system to the federal level would be difficult. He added it would likely require more administrative labor and be more complex than other public finance models.

In Seattle, the 2017 program cost about $1 million in administrative costs alone, before a single voucher was collected.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Legal Foundation has brought legal action to stop the program for two Seattle residents. The program is paid for by a special property tax. And the legal case says it is a violation of taxpayers’ rights to use the money to pay for candidates’ campaigns that they may not support.

For candidates like Murakami, the program is the difference between running and not running for local office. During her unsuccessful 2017 campaign, she collected almost all of her $172,000 in donations from the vouchers.

Without the vouchers, Murakami said, she “never would have attempted to run.”

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Hai Do adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on Tom James' AP report. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

voucher –n. a document that gives a person the right to get something in return, such as a product or service

attorney –n. lawyer

contender –n. a person who tries to win something in a contest

primary –n. happening or coming first

constituent –n. any one of the people who live and vote in an area

dial –v. (informal) to make a call on a telephone

otherwise –n. or else

resident –n. someone who lives in a particular place