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Image: Alison Klein

Political advocacy groups saw Seattle's experimental democracy vouchers as a way to limit big money in politics and have the donor pool better reflect the city itself. 

In some ways, it worked. Far more people donated in this year's local elections—an estimated 84 percent of them were first-time donors, and 71 percent of those first-timers used democracy vouchers, according to an Honest Elections Seattle report released last month. The program certainly raised the number of donations, adding lower-income, younger, and a more diverse pool of donors.

What it didn’t do? Draw more people to be engaged in elections.

Among the nearly 19,000 Seattle residents who turned in vouchers by December 1, just 46 of them were nonvoters, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission—that includes both U.S. citizens not registered to vote and green card holders (immigrants who have legal permanent residency status). A total of 185 nonvoters actually applied to receive vouchers, still much less than 1 percent of nonvoters eligible to use them.

"There's somewhat of a disconnect there, realizing and understanding their ability to donate to candidates," said Cara Bilodeau, program director of Win/Win. "I would also say, just given the nature of our country right now...the trust in terms of how we engage with our government is a lot different than it used to be."

Eldan Goldenberg, a GIS consultant who first opted into the program as a permanent resident, hopes that will change. For noncitizens these days, there's more at stake with local elections as the federal administration pushes back on sanctuary city policies, Goldenberg said.

"A lot of things kind of weighs against us right now," Goldenberg said. "We're actually dependent on decisions made locally to protect us. ...It's kind of a grim situation." 

He grew up in London as an Italian citizen. He lived in Seattle since 2005 and had a green card for 10 years before he became a citizen this year. 

U.S. Census estimates showed more than 22,000 Seattle residents were eligible for U.S. citizenship; those are just permanent residents who meet the requirements for naturalization—which includes having held a green card for five years. (Newer green card holders can also get democracy vouchers.)

Seattle voters in 2015 approved the vouchers through Initiative 122, a campaign spending measure that raised property taxes for the vouchers and also placed restrictions on lobbying and campaign contributions. This year the program began with city council and city attorney positions at a cost of $1.1 million, The Seattle Times reported. By 2021, vouchers can be used for the mayoral election. 

Because both U.S. citizens and green card holders are eligible to use the vouchers, advocates thought of the program as a way to encourage more civic engagement from those who either can't or historically don't vote. The idea was to create a program that was accessible to as many Seattle residents as possible and was also legally compliant, said Spencer Olson, spokesperson at FUSE Washington.

But there are still challenges to overcome to get city residents to both understand the program and use it.

"When a group of people have been historically barred from engaging in electoral politics, it is going to take years of targeted outreach for Legal Permanent Residents to trust the process and participate," Mary Le Nguyen, executive director of Washington Community Action Network, wrote by email. 

Nonvoters also had a favorite in this year's elections; nearly a third of the total vouchers from the group went to Teresa Mosqueda, who won the at-large city council seat. Goldberg donated his four democracy vouchers—a total of $100—to city council member Lorena Gonzalez, who received the second-most vouchers from nonvoters.

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