City Attorney's Office

Court Upholds Seattle's Democracy Vouchers

The Honest Elections Coalition on Friday said the lawsuit was a meritless attack aimed at undermining the will of the voters of Seattle."

By Hayat Norimine November 3, 2017

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Image: Alison Klein

A King County Superior Court judge on Friday struck down a challenge on the city's new democracy voucher program, ruling that the city had a reasonable justification to implement the program. 

Two Seattle property owners, Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon, in late June sued the city claiming that the program subsidizes political speech and violates First Amendment rights, forcing property owners to pay for candidates they don't support. King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus ruled that the program was constitutional.

Andrus sided with the city in saying that the individual gets to choose which candidate gets their democracy vouchers, making it a private choice and not the preferences of the majority of Seattle residents, as the plaintiffs claimed. City attorney Pete Holmes, who participated in the program this year, wasn't involved in the litigation. 

"We are pleased with the court's decision to uphold this important program, which fosters public participation in the electoral process," assistant city attorney Michael Ryan said in a statement Friday.

Seattle voters in 2015 approved the democracy voucher program through Initiative 122 known as "Honest Elections Seattle," which funded vouchers for registered voters and permanent residents to give to candidates of their choice through a property tax. The plaintiffs of the lawsuit, Elster and Pynchon, both own property in Seattle and get taxed but don't use democracy vouchers. (Pynchon lives outside of the city and doesn't receive them.)

It's the first year the city has rolled out its program, which started with city council and city attorney races. The program is scheduled to expand to the mayor's race by 2021. 

Andrus—citing a 2000 Supreme Court case at the University of Wisconsin—did rule that the program violates their First Amendment rights through a mandated fee. The Supreme Court earlier had ruled that students shouldn't be compelled to subsidize student organizations, through a student fee, when they disagreed with those organizations' speech.

But that implication doesn't make the program unconstitutional; the speech restrictions were reasonable, Andrus wrote, and the city "has articulated a reasonable justification" for the program, which is an increase in voter participation in the electoral process. 

The Honest Elections Coalition on Friday said the lawsuit was "misguided" and that the program gives more people a voice in city government by combatting the influence of big money in politics.

"The case, Elster v. City of Seattle, was a meritless attack aimed at undermining the will of the voters of Seattle," the coalition said. "Our city's democracy is strongest when all Seattleites are able to make their voices heard, and the democracy vouchers program is already proving its worth in this regard." 

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