Seattle voters passed a campaign-finance reform initiative called Honest Elections Seattle in November 2015, which is funded by $30 million property tax levy over 10 years.
The program offers Seattle residents $100 “democracy vouchers” to give to political candidates. The idea behind it is to give citizens more of a direct voice in government and make their elected officials more accountable.
In January, the vouchers were mailed to registered Seattle voters as $25 certificates that could be used for City Council or city attorney candidates.
Two Seattle property owners brought a complaint later that year in King County Superior Court that challenged the program as unconstitutional.
Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon say the program is a compelled subsidy of political speech that violates their First Amendment rights, while Seattle countered that it was a valid form of campaign financing.
On Thursday, Judge Beth M. Andrus granted the city’s motion to dismiss the action.
Upholding the program as constitutional, Andrus rejected the property-owners’ arguments that the vouchers constituted “compelled funding of speech,” in violation of U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
“The program is not mandating that property owners associate with each other,” Andrus wrote. “Without this mandated association, it is difficult to see how the test laid out in the ‘compelled funding of speech’ cases fits a campaign funding tax.”
Rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument that the program was not viewpoint neutral under the First Amendment, the judge also noted that the city has eligibility requirements for candidates, and does not put it to a popular vote.
“Any voter can assign a $25 voucher to any eligible candidate, even if that candidate’s viewpoint is unpopular with the majority of Seattle voters,” the 7-page order states. “The city is not distributing voucher funds ‘through majoritarian preferences of Seattle residents.’”
Advocates of the program praised the judge’s decision.
“Seattle’s public financing system loosens the stranglehold that large donors have had over the terms of political debate,” said Tara Malloy of the Campaign Legal Center, who filed an amicus brief in the case.
“As Judge Andrus recognized,” Malloy added, “the voucher program aims to broaden ‘voter participation in the electoral process’ – and to further the First Amendment rights of city residents – by giving more people an opportunity to have their voices heard in our democracy.”
Ethan Blevins, an attorney for the taxpayers with the Pacific Legal Foundation, called it burdensome for Seattle to collect campaign contribution on the backs of property owners.
“This disappointing decision runs contrary to a long line of Supreme Court cases stating that the First Amendment allows each of us to decide what to say and what not to say,” Blevins said in a statement (emphasis in original). “The Supreme Court has applied this rule to compelled speech and compelled subsidies of speech, like the tax at issue here. Our clients and Seattle property owners generally should not be forced to sponsor other people’s political views. We plan to vindicate that principle on appeal.”