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Image: Doug Chayka

For a city that prizes elected officials who can relate to Seattle’s most vulnerable residents, Hisam Goueli, a gay, Muslim, Arab American psychiatrist and burlesque performer married to a formerly undocumented Peruvian American, checked a lot of boxes. The 39-year-old had never run for office, but as he saw his indigent patients stay increasingly longer at the University of Washington’s Northwest Hospital and Medical Center, he yearned for a candidate with health care experience who could make policy decisions during the current homelessness crisis. And so, in February 2017, the fledgling politician announced his campaign to replace retiring veteran council member Tim Burgess.

Goueli was green, but after Donald Trump’s election he followed Seattle politics closely. And some voters noticed. The crowd would applaud his answers at candidate forums. He was familiar with city policy. He opposed Seattle’s soda tax, arguing it punished low-income residents. On the campaign trail, he proposed a $25 million investment in health care so the city could collect federal dollars for social services. 

By the time The Stranger announced its endorsements in July, though, he was sure he would lose. It wasn’t just that the newspaper favored one of his opponents, Jon Grant. It trivialized his bid by describing his body instead of his platform. Goueli was “a hot gay doctor (the tits on that man!),” the editorial board declared, before skipping along to explain why it wasn’t endorsing Grant’s other rivals. It was one of only a few times the media even mentioned his campaign, and the objectifying brush-off stung, he says, in part because he’s a sexual assault survivor. As Seattleites started casting their ballots a week later, Goueli still had no name recognition. Voters who weren’t familiar with him had little reason to consider him credible. And come August, few did. He won the support of only 3 percent of voters. Among eight candidates, he came in seventh place. 

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Hundreds of voters donated vouchers to city council candidate Hisam Goueli—but the money came too late.

Goueli figured nobody would take him seriously after The Stranger’s curt dismissal. But sitting in a Capitol Hill bakery on a warm October afternoon, Goueli, wearing a T-shirt, faded jeans, and a newsboy cap, his face slightly scruffier than when he was stumping, wondered if something else had cost him the election—so-called democracy vouchers, the city’s campaign finance experiment. 

This year, for the first time, every U.S. citizen and permanent resident in Seattle qualified for four $25 paper vouchers to donate to city council or city attorney hopefuls. Candidates could then exchange the vouchers for cash. Before the city would pay up, candidates had to qualify for the democracy voucher program by gathering 400 signatures and 400 corresponding $10 donations from voters. 

Goueli loved the idea. He thought the vouchers would help outsider candidates who weren’t already propped up by the political establishment. He and his campaign team believed the program could help him win. Now? 

He laughs, the same loud, boisterous noise that echoed on the campaign trail. 

“It made us hate politics.”

 

The democracy voucher program got its start in 2015, when Seattle voters overwhelmingly backed Initiative 122. A coalition of campaign finance reform advocates designed the program to both limit big money in campaigns and enable more Seattle residents to participate in elections. Historically, older, higher-earning residents are far likelier to donate to political candidates, as are political action committees created by interest groups like the Chamber of Commerce. The program’s supporters hoped giving vouchers to all eligible residents would help the campaign donor base better reflect the city’s population.

The vouchers in turn were supposed to help candidates who had small war chests but appealed to low-income voters without the means to make a political contribution. And yet, it took so much time for candidates to actually qualify for the program, some complain they lost precious time they should have spent introducing themselves to voters in the first place. 

Goueli could have helped finance his council run using his own money, but by volunteering to participate in the voucher program—something he believed in and voted for—he couldn’t. His campaign manager, Joselynn Engstrom, started trying to meet the program’s requirements back in March 2017. She spent dozens of hours each week gathering $10 donations and scrambling to get signatures from donors who chipped in online. She and Goueli further struggled to confirm their donors’ identities, an obligatory step to ensure they were legitimate. But even Engstrom’s own donation was invalid because her signature didn’t match her voter registration. As the August primary neared, the campaign manager broke down crying daily.

Such hurdles were intended to safeguard the voucher program from fraud, but for all the city’s efforts, they may have failed. In late July, the Seattle Police Department began investigating Sheley Secrest, another candidate in Goueli’s council race; her former campaign manager, Patrick Burke, claimed she illegally used her own money to report false donations. Burke says Secrest grew desperate as democracy voucher donations her campaign submitted were returned three times because King County couldn’t validate the signatures. So, Burke says, she told him that she stuck $560 of her own money in different envelopes and claimed they were $10 donations from 56 voters. (Secrest declined to comment.)

Democracy vouchers, ideally, are supposed to help weed out candidates who aren’t politically viable; if you can’t gather 400 signatures and 400 donations, doesn’t that mean you wouldn’t have the votes to win anyway? Newly elected city council member Teresa Mosqueda (who won the at-large seat Goueli ran for) and Grant both qualified for democracy vouchers long before the primary. Both also triumphed in that election and moved on to the general. Their success, according to voucher supporters, is evidence the program’s working. 

But both candidates were already backed by political powerhouses. Mosqueda was supported by labor groups, and Grant—who had run for office before—was a familiar face, and one aided by community organizations and the Socialist Alternative party. Which raises a worrisome question: Could vouchers actually be undermining underdog candidates? 

Like Goueli, Mac McGregor tried to fund his campaign with vouchers. He was another dark horse with reasons to stand out—he would have been the city’s first transgender council member. But he couldn’t manage to qualify for the program. He placed last in the race. 

Goueli didn’t qualify for the program until four days before the primary. The money he received the day before the election—a check for $14,775—was useless. It was too late to spend it on anything that could help him get elected. Instead he paid people who had volunteered to work for his campaign, and he treated his staff to an almost $500 dinner.

 

An October 2017 analysis by two political advocacy nonprofits showed that Seattle’s democracy vouchers are, in fact, increasing donor participation in the city. The number of small donors is unprecedented—by December 1, candidates received more than 71,000 vouchers from about 19,000 people, says Rene LeBeau, the city’s democracy voucher program manager. 

Those donors are also more representative of the city’s demographics, says Spencer Olson, a spokesperson for Fuse Washington, which was a part of the Honest Elections Coalition behind the initiative. The base has grown to include more residents who are younger, low income, or people of color.

“It’s just incredible to see how many people are using their vouchers,” Olson says.

Still, the program hasn’t fully eliminated big money in politics. A 2010 U.S. Supreme court decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case makes it difficult to regulate campaign spending. Back in Seattle, that kind of cash can still creep into campaigns. Initiative 122 didn’t cap independent expenditures, meaning political action committees can spend as much as they want on, say, ads so long as they’re not coordinating with the candidates. The labor political action committee and other groups that backed Mosqueda, for example, spent more than $200,000 on independent expenditures. 

Candidates participating in the voucher program, meanwhile, were supposed to spend $150,000 or less during the primary. But the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission lifted that cap for Grant and Mosqueda to keep up with small-business owner Sara Nelson, a Chamber-backed candidate who passed on the voucher program and raised more than the $150K cap through private donations. (Nelson, who finished third in the primary, said she decided not to participate in the program primarily because she thought it would take too much time away from meeting with voters.)

Burke, Secrest’s former campaign manager, believes the program is flawed. The vouchers give established candidates who are already politically organized another advantage. But, he says, it’s still an important initiative the city should stick with because it gives low-income residents a louder voice as the city decides who should represent them. 

“It’s a program you have to fight for,” Burke says. “It gives free speech to people who can’t afford to donate.”

The city council is likely to tweak the program before it’s used again for council elections in 2019, and for the mayor’s race in 2021. In the meantime, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission will discuss the program and its process for qualifying candidates with King County Elections and compare it to other campaign finance laws in places like San Francisco, New York, and Maine. Another improvement, LeBeau says, could be its process for reviewing contributions and corresponding signatures.

Engstrom, Hisam Goueli’s campaign manager, insists separating the two steps—instead requiring 400 signatures and 400 donations that don’t have to match—would have made the difference for Goueli’s campaign. She’s optimistic that the program can still succeed. She wanted, more than anything, to make it work for Goueli—and his supporters. Hundreds of people had donated their vouchers to him. Engstrom thought ensuring their money didn’t go to waste was as important as a vote itself. 

“Those people believed in us, believed in Hisam,” Engstrom says. “They specifically wanted us to have that money. We just couldn’t let them down.”

In November, though, Goueli and his supporters cast their votes for someone else. 

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