Tag: democracy vouchers

Is Seattle’s Experiment in Public Campaign Finance Working?

This story, which I reported several months ago, just appeared in the July 2019 print edition of Seattle magazine. Many of the numbers have changed; for example, 35 candidates have now qualified for and are receiving democracy vouchers, and of those, 27 have been released from either total spending limits or total contribution limits or both, a process I covered in more detail here. Meanwhile, as I predicted in my piece, independent spending—the primary impediment to the idealistic goals of the democracy voucher program—continues to balloon, outpacing both individual cash donations and democracy vouchers in many races. I’ve lightly edited this version of the story to reflect some of the changes since the story went to print; the version that ran in the magazine is available on Seattle magazine’s website.

This year’s Seattle City Council races have produced a bumper crop of candidates—55 people running for seven council seats. Of those, more than 40 have signed up to participate in the city’s audacious experiment in campaign funding: democracy vouchers, a unique form of public campaign financing in which voters determine who gets public funds.

The goals of the program are twofold: to increase the number and diversity of candidates running in local races; and to make it possible for more ordinary residents, including noncitizens and people who are not registered to vote, to donate directly to candidates even if they lack the personal funds to do so.

Two elections in since the program began in 2017, it’s clear that more candidates are running. In 2015, the first year that most council positions were elected by district (there are seven district and two at-large council seats), the same seven seats drew 41 candidates. And more people than ever before are also contributing to local races. Whether that participation translates into a different kind of city council—one that includes, for example, renters and people without connections to deep-pocketed donors—remains an open question.

First, some history. Four years ago, in an election that was closely watched by voting-reform advocates across the country, Seattle voters passed Initiative 122, which radically changed how city elections are conducted and financed. Although the initiative was sweeping—limiting contributions from city contractors, prohibiting lobbying by former elected officials and lowering contribution limits—the most dramatic change was the creation of an unprecedented financing system that sets aside public money for Seattle residents to spend on candidates for city offices.

Financed through a $30 million, 10-year property tax, the experimental Democracy Voucher Program allocates four “vouchers” worth a total of $100 to every Seattle resident, who can earmark the vouchers to the qualifying candidate or candidates of their choice. Nominees qualify for the program by collecting a specified number of signatures and contributions. (See sidebar.) Once they qualify, candidates also must abide by contribution and spending limits and participate in at least three public forums. The program is voluntary; this year, several candidates, including District 3 (central Seattle) incumbent and socialist Kshama Sawant, are not participating, freeing them from the program’s spending and contribution caps.

In 2015—before the Democracy Voucher Program was in place—only 1.3 percent of Seattle residents donated to local campaigns, most of them residents of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, according to an analysis that year by Sightline Institute, which drafted I-122. In 2017, the first year of the program, that number nearly tripled, to 3.4 percent.

“If your wallet is empty, you’re still able to participate in this part of the political process,” says Liz Dupee, who directs the Washington Democracy Hub at the Win/Win Network, a progressive advocacy group. Last year, a Win/Win analysis found that democracy vouchers had “diversified the pool of donors” to include more young people, people of color and residents of less affluent neighborhoods.

District 2 City Council candidate Tammy Morales, who narrowly lost to incumbent Bruce Harrell in her first run for the southeast Seattle seat in 2015, says democracy vouchers have been a game changer for her. “The last time I ran, I would knock on somebody’s door who might feel very compelled by my message and the things I was hoping to do, but I wasn’t about to ask them for a contribution because they couldn’t afford it, and now I can ask them for their vouchers,” Morales says. “They’re providing a way for people who don’t have a lot of resources to participate.”

Other studies back this up. A city-commissioned report by BerkConsulting found that 88 percent of people who used vouchers in 2017 had never contributed to a local campaign before.

So far, vouchers haven’t made campaigns cheaper. In 2017—the first year that City Council candidates could participate in the voucher program—Position 8 candidates Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda spent a combined total of $818,000, making the race one of the most expensive council races in recent Seattle history. Both Grant and Mosqueda participated in the Democracy Voucher Program, but the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (which has the discretion to do so) raised the cap on individual contributions from $250 to $500 and lifted the total spending limit for both candidates after Mosqueda’s fundraising repeatedly blew past Grant’s.

In 2017, when just two council seats were on the ballot, spending for City Council campaigns increased 60 percent over 2015, when all nine seats were up for election.

If one of the goals of the program is to make campaigns less expensive, it may seem counterintuitive to raise the caps. But Ethics and Elections Commission executive director Wayne Barnett argues that it’s important for campaigns to have the ability to combat well-funded outside groups—in other words, political action committees (PACs), which are not subject to contribution or spending limits. “If you’re not going to give a candidate an opportunity to remain competitive when outside forces start spending heavily on behalf of their opponent, I don’t think candidates are likely to remain in the [Democracy Voucher] program.”

Morales, who announced her candidacy in January, says the spending caps can make it hard to pay campaign workers a living wage while also budgeting for expenses like ads and campaign mail. And Mosqueda notes that the cap on democracy vouchers made it impossible for people who wanted to contribute to her campaign to do so after she hit the $300,000 maximum for voucher contributions. “We need to either say that we need to stay within these caps or get rid of them,” Mosqueda says. “There were a lot of people [last year] who were very frustrated that they couldn’t use their democracy vouchers.” Two-thirds of Mosqueda’s campaign funding in 2017 came from democracy vouchers.

It’s also unclear whether democracy vouchers are accomplishing their second goal: producing a larger, higher-quality and more diverse field of local candidates. Much has been made of the sheer number of people running for the City Council this year. But most of them are white and wealthier than average; according to financial disclosure statements (which, thanks to I-122, now include each candidate’s net wealth), 15 of this year’s candidates have a net worth of over $1 million, and only a handful are people of color.

Candidates who want to participate in the voucher program aren’t guaranteed funding. Before they can receive any vouchers, they have to collect a minimum number of signatures (400 in citywide races; 150 for each district council seat) and get donations of at least $10 from an equal number of registered voters.

In 2017, when the two citywide seats were on the ballot, the candidates were required to get signatures and donations from the same 400 people, a requirement that 2017 candidate Hisam Goueli says forced him to spend most of his time chasing contributions and signatures rather than meeting with voters. “We believed in the Democracy Voucher Program; we were just broken by it,” Goueli says. “We were devastated to find out the program we thought would be the thing that helped us get our message out would be the hamstring to the campaign.” The rule has since been changed. Voucher candidates still have to get a minimum number of signatures and contributions, but the signatures and contributions can now come from different people.

On the plus side, Alex Pedersen, a candidate in northeast Seattle’s District 4, says the signature requirement (and the limitations imposed by the voucher program itself) gives a leg up to candidates who are willing to engage with voters face-to-face. “Even those [candidates] accustomed to using social media are now required to put on their walking shoes and knock on doors, which I think will help to build greater trust between the people and their elected officials and make politics more fun and engaging,” Pedersen says.

Candidates who have declined to participate in the Democracy Voucher Program give various reasons for their decision. At her January kickoff for reelection, council member Sawant, the District 3 incumbent, said that she expected to have “probably a million [dollars] thrown at this race” by “corporate PACs and big business lobbyists and big developers,” and would need to raise and spend more money than the voucher program would allow.

Ari Hoffman, who’s running in District 2, opposes the voucher program for philosophical reasons. “I made the decision at the beginning of the campaign not to take democracy vouchers, because I do not believe that taxpayer money should be used to finance political campaigns,” Hoffman says. “My campaign is about fiscal accountability in our local governments, and I would be a hypocrite if I took taxpayer money to fund it.”

And Naveed Jamali, who’s running in District 7 (downtown, Magnolia and Queen Anne), says he prefers to focus on policy rather than “chasing vouchers”; when he knocks on people’s doors, he says, “the first question is about ‘What issues are important to you?’ It’s not about making the sale.”

Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program is still very new, and proponents say they’re well aware of its shortcomings and that it wouldn’t be surprising if the program—assuming it continues—receives some fine-tuning in the future. But Margaret Morales, a researcher with Sightline, notes that no amount of tinkering can fix what many reform advocates consider the most troubling trend in recent years: the growing impact of independent spending, which totaled more than $1 million in 2017. To change that, Morales and other voucher proponents note, will require overturning the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which opened the floodgates for unlimited spending by political action committees. In the meantime, Morales says, candidates “just have to do the best they can regardless of independent expenditures.”

 

Democracy Vouchers 101 

Candidates for Seattle offices who file all the required paperwork can choose to participate in the Democracy Voucher Program.To be eligible for vouchers*, candidates for the City Council’s district positions must:

• Collect signatures from 150 Seattle residents (including from at least 75 in their district)
• Collect at least $10 from 150 residents (including from at least 75 in their district; the financial contributions and signatures do not need to come from the same people).

• Limit their campaign valuation—the total amount of money raised or spent—to $75,000 in the primary election and $75,000 in the general election.

Additionally, candidates accepting democracy vouchers must:

• Adhere to an individual contribution cap of $250 (the cap for candidates not accepting democracy vouchers is $500).

• Not collect any more vouchers once they have reached their total campaign valuation cap.

Candidates—both those who accept vouchers and those who choose not to—can appeal to the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission to have the caps on fundraising and expenditures raised.

*The required number of signature, dollar amounts, and spending and contribution caps vary depending on whether a candidate is running for a district council seat, an at-large council seat or another elected city office. 

Sawant, Predicting $1 Million in PAC Spending Against Her, Won’t Participate in Democracy Voucher Program

At her reelection kickoff rally/press conference at Saba Ethiopian Restaurant in the Central District Thursday morning, District 3 city council incumbent Kshama Sawant said she will not participate in the city’s “democracy voucher” program, because its spending limits would make it impossible for her to compete against “corporate [political action committees] and Republican and Democratic establishment people” who want her out of office. Sawant has been in office for six years, including one full four-year term as the council member for District 3, which includes a swath of east-central Seattle between Montlake and the Central District, along with part of Beacon Hill.

“We’re going to have, definitely, more than half a million, probably a million [dollars] thrown at this race to try and defeat us,” Sawant predicted. “As long as corporate PACs and big business lobbyists and big developers don’t have a spending cap, working people need dollars to fuel their campaign, and we do that unapologetically.” Last time she ran, Sawant outspent her challenger, Pam Banks, by nearly $100,000; independent expenditures for Banks totaled about $40,000, while IEs for Sawant or against Banks came to about $27,000.

Democracy vouchers, adopted by voters as part of a package of election reforms in 2015, are supposed to serve two purposes: To level the playing field so that people don’t have to be rich or well-connected to run for office; and to give ordinary people a financial stake in local elections, by providing every Seattle voter with $100 to spend on the candidate or candidates of their choice. In 2017, when two council seats were on the ballot, five council candidates participated in the program, spending a total of almost $1 million. Two of those candidates, Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda (who was elected to council Position 8) repeatedly (and successfully) petitioned the city to raise the cap on contributions from $250 to $500. The city also released both candidates from the $300,000 total spending cap, making the first election under the new system one of the most expensive—at $818,000 between the two candidates—in recent Seattle history.

Candidates running for district seats face lower spending limits—$150,000 for the primary and the general combined—and the same $250 contribution limit. By opting out of the program, Sawant will be able to accept contributions of up to $500 and will face no total cap on spending.

Sawant’s claim that business PACs and “CEOs” will amass a million dollars to defeat her is impossible to prove until it happens, and recent history doesn’t provide an exact comparison. The last district elections, in 2015, occurred before the current spending limits and the advent of democracy vouchers, and the only election with democracy vouchers so far included only citywide candidates. But it’s noteworthy that in 2015, Sawant, as an incumbent, outspent all other candidates in her own and every other district—including candidates who actually were targeted by PACs that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, like District 1 council member Lisa Herbold. The big PAC money that year was for Herbold opponent Shannon Braddock ($229,000),Position 9 candidate (and pre-districts council incumbent) Tim Burgess ($219,000), and District 4 victor Rob Johnson ($80,000)—not for or against Sawant. Two years later, both business and labor PACs maxed out at roughly similar levels. So there’s no precedent for the kind of PAC spending Sawant is predicting in any local council race—including her own most recent reelection bid.

Support

Although Squirrel Chops owner and Socialist Alternative party member Shirley Henderson—who hosted a rare in-district meet-and-greet with Sawant at her salon/coffee shop in the new Central apartment building at 23rd and Union last year—praised Sawant’s “accessibility” on Thursday, the council member has been criticized for focusing on issues outside her district and being unresponsive to constituents outside her political circle. Sawant characterized claims that she is unresponsive to people in her district as farcical. “I think there are going to be countless people in the district who would not only disagree with that assessment but who would find that patently untrue and, quite honestly, absurd,” she said. “If you look at just the day-to-day work that we do— first of all, we get dozens of phone calls every day, emails, and other forms of communication. People come in personally. People talk to me in grocery stores, coffee shops, just walking along the street, and we hear about their day-to-day situations related to parks or crosswalks or potholes or any other situation. … We work tirelessly to help address those issues.” (Anecdotally, as a reporter and a resident of District 3, I have heard complaints from Sawant’s constituents that her office is unresponsive to emails and requests for meetings; I have also seen emails to Sawant’s office complaining about her focus on issues specific to other parts of the city, like the “Save the Showbox” campaign.)

But, she added, the “overarching” issues in the district are the same ones that impact the entire city—”the lack of affordable housing [and] the fact that the entire character of our district and of our city is transforming, where ordinary working people and their families … are getting pushed out of the city because the rents have skyrocketed and the city is becoming a playground for the wealthy and corporate developers.” Say what you will about Sawant, but she’s always on brand.

Morning Crank: From Homeless Camp to Graffiti Fence

1. Back in February, the Seattle Department of Transportation put up a temporary chain-link fence around the Ballard Bridge underpass at Leary Way Northwest in an attempt to deter homeless people from trying to take shelter under the bridge. Several weeks later, the fence was replaced by a more permanent structure, topped with metal spikes and standing some ten feet tall. The city argued that the $100,000 fence was necessary because if homeless people were allowed to sleep under the bridge, they might set the bridge on fire, causing it to collapse. Whatever the city’s motivation, the fence also answered the wishes of many neighborhood activists who took umbrage at having to look at homeless people through their car windows on their way home from work.

Now, they get to look at this:

And this:

And this:

About half the fencing is currently covered with graffiti, a problem made possible, in part, by the wall-like semipermanent fencing the city chose to enclose the area under the bridge. Asked when or whether the city plans to clean up the graffiti, SDOT spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said SDOT’s first priority is maintaining the safety of the bridge; in a followup, she said graffiti removal is the responsibility of Seattle Public Utilities, which plans to clean up the graffiti four times a year, at a cost of about $1,900 per cleanup. Given that the fences appear to be an appealing target for taggers, I asked Hobson if the city might step up its efforts to keep the fence tag-free; I’ll update this post if I get more information.

2. The Rental Housing Association of Washington—a group that advocates on behalf of landlords—filed a lawsuit today challenging the city’s “fair chance housing” law, which says that landlords can’t ask about potential tenants’ criminal history when deciding whether to rent to them. The lawsuit is one of several RHA has filed against the city in recent months; the group has also challenged laws capping the amount of move-in fees landlords can require tenants to pay and the so-called first-in-time law, which requires landlords to rent to the first qualified candidate. (A King County Superior Court judge  agreed with RHA, ruling in March that the first-in-time law violated landlords’ property rights). In its complaint, the group argues that the law infringes on landlords’ “constitutionally protected right to choose whom they will house and work within these often lengthy and interpersonal landlord-tenant relationships. The inability to access valuable information about potential tenants increases various risks faced by plaintiffs when renting their property.”

At a press conference Tuesday morning, RHA president William Shadbolt argued that the city’s tenant protection ordinances make the housing affordability crisis worse. “Making criminals a protected class and other ordinances like it makes the city council directly responsible for increasing people’s rent,” he said. Shadbolt suggested that the city should instead adopt a law that would give renters with criminal records (of any kind) the option of going before an “impartial panel” to get a “restoration of opportunity” certificate that could allow them to rent from some “willing small landlord[s].”  Several landlords said they had drastically increased their screening criteria—requiring higher income or credit scores, for example—in an attempt to prevent “the criminals” from qualifying to rent from them.

In reality, criminal background checks allow landlords to screen out people who have merely been arrested or accused, but found not guilty, of committing a crime—one reason that criminal background checks disproportionately impact people of color, who are far more likely to be targeted, detained, and charged for crimes they did not commit. (Overall, roughly one in three Seattle residents has some kind of criminal history). On the other end of the spectrum, people who do commit crimes and serve their time have a much easier time reintegrating into their communities if they have stable housing.  And of course, people with stable housing are much less likely to commit crimes that stem from poverty, isolation, lack of services, and economic desperation.

City council member Lisa Herbold, who sponsored the fair-chance legislation, says, “One of the fundamental tenets of our justice system is that only a court of law can punish someone accused of a crime.  Blocking people from accessing stable housing based upon their criminal background violates this fundamental tenet of our justice system and is inconsistent with the rule of law.” Herbold also disputes the idea that renting to people with criminal backgrounds puts landlords and tenants without criminal history at rick. “Blocking people from accessing stable housing is a recipe for recidivism and less safety for our communities,” she says. “With housing, a person is seven times less likely to reenter the criminal justice system.  I would expect anyone in favor of a safer Seattle to support this law.”

3. A report by BERK Consulting on Seattle’s “democracy voucher” program, which provides four $25 vouchers to every Seattle resident to contribute to the local candidates of their choice, concludes that while more people contributed to candidates in last year’s elections compared to previous years, the people who used democracy vouchers skewed whiter, wealthier, and older than the city as a whole. The report also found that while more candidates decided to run last year, only a handful managed to qualify for vouchers, and made recommendations for improving the system and increasing access to vouchers in the future.
A few highlights of the 51-page report:
• Democracy vouchers did little to prevent “big money” from dominating Seattle politics, as total spending in city council campaigns increased 60 percent between 2015 and 2017, as candidates asked to be released from campaign spending limits when their opponents’ spending, plus spending by outside groups on their behalf, exceeded the limits set by the legislation that established the voucher program. Independent expenditures, which the city does not have the authority to limit, jumped 55 percent over the same two-year period, leading the consultants to conclude that “the role of big money in Seattle elections persists.”
• Because candidates can be released from spending limits if their opponent’s total contributions (including both direct contributions and independent expenditures) exceeded those limits, the report found, the program may unfairly penalize candidates who have no say over whether an outside group does an independent expenditure on their behalf. Conversely, the trigger for releasing campaigns from spending limits might create a perverse incentive for candidates to encourage or solicit small IEs against their opponents in order to boost their combined campaign spending above the threshold and triggering a release from spending limits. “
• For candidates, the biggest barrier to participating in the democracy voucher program was the difficulty of getting signatures and contributions of at least $10 from 400 registered voters and verifying their information with the city, with the result that “most candidates did not receive any public funding, or qualified to receive public funding too late in the election cycle to make a difference.” To fix that problem in the future (and, presumably, to help prevent democracy voucher fraud in future elections), the consultants recommend “significantly streamlining the verification process – particularly when it comes to qualifying contributions,” by allowing people to verify their identities electronically when they make their contributions.
BERK will present its report to the Ethics and Elections Commission on the 40th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower today at 4.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: The Motion Did Not Include a Plan B

1. Embattled King County Democrats chair Bailey Stober, who has refused to step down after an internal investigation concluded he sexually harassed and bullied his sole employee, Natalia Koss Vallejo, before firing her last month, has called a special meeting of the group’s executive board for March 19 to discuss what to do now that efforts to recruit a five-person panel to do a new investigation into Stober’s conduct as chair have failed. Stober is also accused of misappropriating the organization’s funds; among other things, he reportedly spent $14,000 more on campaign contributions than was allocated in last year’s budget.

At a meeting late last month, the King County Democrats’ executive board decided that an initial investigation by the group’s three vice-chairs was inadequate, and decided to let Stober himself appoint two of the members of a five-member panel to investigate the charges against him. The board also decided to expand the investigation to include an investigation of the original investigation, as well as an investigation into who “leaked” information about the complaints to the media, including me. Two of the five members would be appointed by the group’s vice chairs, and the fifth would be approved jointly by Stober and the vice-chairs, giving Stober himself effective control over the makeup of half the group investigating him for workplace misconduct.

Over the course of the investigation, two of the group’s three vice chairs have resigned, and the third, Orchideh Raisdanai, has apparently been unable to find anyone who will serve on the panel. Several potential members reportedly declined because they did not want to lend credibility to the process.

In an email to the executive board, Stober quoted from a note sent by the King County Democrats’ Democratic National Committee representative David McDonald—a Stober ally who oversaw the closed-door executive board meeting that led to the decision to form a new five-member panel—outlining the purpose of the meeting. (Stober and one of his allies, state committeeman Jon Culver, have begun monitoring and controlling the flow of emails to and from the general executive board address, according to group members who have tried to email the board, so that board members don’t see every email sent to their address and outgoing messages are reportedly monitored and approved by Stober or Culver.) “The motion adopted at the February 27 meeting did not specify a plan B in the event that the requested Committee could not be constituted in the time frame specified,” McDonald wrote. “Accordingly, the Chair was requested to call a special meeting of the Executive Board for the purpose of adopting a plan B procedure or taking other appropriate action in light of the events.” What that “Plan B procedure” will be remains unclear.

Tim Farrell, who chairs the Pierce County Democrats, will oversee the meeting. Last year, the Pierce County Democrats were fined $22,600 for breaking campaign-finance laws by repeatedly failing to properly report donations and spending over the course of three years. The King County Democrats are currently negotiating their own fine over similar charges, and Stober is now the subject of two new, separate complaints charging that he and other party officers concealed the group’s dire financial situation from the public, failed to report pledges and expenditures, and failed to file other reports properly and promptly.

On Wednesday, members of the 34th District Democrats who want Stober to step down will propose a resolution calling on Stober to resign. Several other Democratic groups across King County, including the 43rd, 11th, 45th, and 36th Legislative District Dems, have passed or are considering resolutions withholding funds from the King County Democrats until Stober steps down, but the 34th has not yet done so. The group is chaired by David Ginsberg, a stalwart Stober supporter who told the Seattle Times that he didn’t believe Stober had harassed Koss Vallejo because they had socialized and seemed “chummy” before Stober fired her.  Meanwhile, another group that has been silent so far is the 37th District Democrats; their chair, Alec Stephens, evocatively compared the investigation into Stober to a lynching at last month’s meeting.

An open letter calling on Stober to resign now has nearly 200 signatures from Democratic leaders, precinct committee officers, and elected officials.

2. The Seattle Ethics and Elections commission will release its first postelection report on the Democracy Voucher program today, featuring information about which voters took advantage of the opportunity to allocate public funds to which candidates, and how; how much money the program cost; and how (and when) Seattle residents spent their vouchers.

Some highlights from the SEEC’s report:

• Not surprisingly, most people allocated their vouchers—a total of $100 per registered voter, divided into four $25 increments—just before the primary and/or general elections. In July, prior to the August 1, 2017 primary election, the city received 11,548  vouchers; in October, leading up to the November 7 general election, voters returned 14,288 vouchers to the city. However, quite a few vouchers were returned well before the May 19 deadline for candidates to declare they were running—11,530 vouchers came in between January, when vouchers landed in mailboxes, and April, suggesting that candidates who filed early (like unsuccessful Position 8 candidate Jon Grant) had some success locking down voucher contributions before other candidates had a chance to get in their races. Voters returned a total of just over 72,000 vouchers in all.

• About one in five vouchers came in to the city directly from the campaigns, which solicited voucher contributions from voters; the rest came in through the mail (78 percent) or were emailed or delivered to the ethics board by hand.

• The overwhelming majority—76 percent—of people who returned their vouchers to the city gave them to just one candidate, rather than distributing the four $25 vouchers to different candidates.

• The requirement that candidates secure at least 400 signatures and 400 contributions of $10 or more appears to have been a significant barrier to voucher program participation. Only six candidates ultimately qualified for public funding with vouchers, and one, Hisam Goeuli, has pointed out that it took him so long to collect the required signatures—27 weeks—that by the time he had access to voucher funding, it was too late in the campaign for him to benefit from it. However, the other five candidates who qualified all appeared on the general election ballot, most of them after making it through the August primary.

• In 2017, the voucher program came in about $787,000 under its $3 million budget; under the initiative that authorized the program, unused funds are reserved for spending in future years.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

BREAKING: Seattle City Attorney Charges Ex-Candidate Sheley Secrest With Theft, False Reporting

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes has filed criminal charges against former city council candidate Sheley Secrest, who allegedly used her own money to make it appear that she had more contributions toward the 400 required to qualify for democracy vouchers than she actually had. Secrest ran unsuccessfully for council Position 8, which is now held by Teresa Mosqueda, last year.

The charges include one misdemeanor charge of false reporting, which relates to the false reports Secrest allegedly filed with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, and one gross misdemeanor charge of attempted theft, which refers to the potential $150,000* Secrest attempted to receive from the city through publicly funded democracy vouchers. The 2017 election was the first election in which candidates could qualify for democracy vouchers—$100 in contributions that voters can give to the candidate or candidates of their choice. To qualify for democracy vouchers, candidates had to get 400 signatures, along with small contributions of $10 or more, from Seattle voters. As the Seattle Times reported last year, Secrest’s former campaign manager, Patrick Burke, alleged that Secrest used $560 of her own money and misrepresented it as coming from voters who signed a petition to qualify her for the vouchers. (Secrest did not end up qualifying even with the disputed funds.)

Last year, Burke filed a police report charging that Secrest had told him to collect signatures and not to worry about getting the necessary corresponding contributions; after he turned in 56 signatures at the Trans Pride Festival and at a local high school, he says, Secrest pulled $600 in 20-dollar bills from her purse and handed him $560. Secrest has denied all the allegations.

Burke, who says he is now living at a Salvation Army homeless shelter, has also charged that Secrest failed to pay him more than $3,300 for his services as her campaign manager. (The Ethics and Elections Commission reports that the Secrest campaign paid Burke just over $1,300 and owes him $1,675, but says he was also promised 11.8 percent in bonus pay based on how many signatures and contributions he brought in.) He has a hearing this afternoon in his small-claims case against Secrest. (More about that in tomorrow’s Morning Crank.) ”

“[Secrest] said, ‘If you can stick with this until we get the democracy vouchers, it will be worth your while,'” Burke says, “and I said, ‘If that’s what we need to do, let’s just push it and get done, but you have to understand that I can’t be at all the events that you need me to be at.” Burke says that by the time he was fired from the campaign, in July of last year, he could not afford to keep his phone on or pay for bus fare; part of his dispute is that Secrest paid new vendors before she paid him.

Secrest says Burke “has been paid for all services performed before the date of his termination,” adding, “Washington is an at-will employment state, meaning an employer does not need cause to fire an employee.  In this matter, we repeatedly informed Patrick that we could not afford to keep him on staff. We clearly told him to stop working for pay, and we repeatedly told him that we will reach out once funds were available.”

I have reached out to Secrest for comment on the charges against her, and will update this post if she responds.

The penalty for the simple misdemeanor charge is up to three months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000; for the gross misdemeanor, up to five years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.

In Portland, voters shut down a similar public-financing program after one candidate misappropriated more than $90,000 in public funds, and another was convicted for forging signatures.

This is a breaking news post and I will update as more information becomes available.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Women Should Get Credit for the Work We Do

1. Yesterday, in response to a Seattle Times endorsement that cited former Tenants Union director Jon Grant’s superior “experience,” “reasonable[ness], and “objectiv[ity], more than 100 women—including elected officials, women’s rights advocates and both of Seattle’s mayoral candidates, Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan—signed on to an “open letter to the people of Seattle” denouncing the Times’ dog-whistling dismissal of Mosqueda’s achievements.

“Women should get credit for the work we do, and for our hard-won experience,” the letter reads. “We must stop making excuses or standing by while others overstate their resumes at the expense of women whose qualifications, experience, and track record are indisputable. The Seattle Times Editorial Board lauds the ‘experience’ of Teresa’s opponent, yet Teresa spent years helping craft the minimum wage and sick leave policy and leading the state-wide initiative that her opponent was hired for a period to work on.”

As I noted in my primary election endorsement of Mosqueda, the longtime advocate for women, people of color, and workers has “a mile-long resume and an incredible track record fighting successfully for equitable health care, fair wages, and paid sick and family leave.” I also noted Grant’s propensity for taking credit for work he has done as well as work he hasn’t done, including his brief tenure campaigning for the sick-leave initiative Mosqueda helped draft (where—note to the Seattle Times—he worked for Mosqueda). “The most effective city council members,” I wrote, “aren’t the ones who grandstand and take credit; they’re the ones who do the unglamorous, nose-to-the-grindstone work of drafting legislation and rounding up support.”

When I wrote about the letter (and the Times’ seeming preference for a white person—any white person—over qualified women of color in this year’s council races), Times editorial board member Donna Blankinship demanded an apology and offered “data” (the Times has endorsed a number of women and a few people of color) as a refutation of my “opinions.” I hardly expect deep self-examination from a paper that called anti-Casa Latina, anti-El Centro de la Raza, and anti-development activist Pat Murakami a longtime “advocate” for “Seattle’s underserved communities,” but the fact that more than 100 prominent Seattle women share my “opinion” should give them pause, unless they’re going to demand apologies from every woman who signed the letter.

2. Throughout his campaign, city council Position 8 candidate Jon Grant has touted the Honest Elections initiative, which created a system of public financing for city council elections and imposed campaign spending limits, for “leveling the playing field and supporting grassroots candidates” like himself. Just yesterday, however, he requested—and got—his second exemption from the spending limits imposed by the Honest Elections program, allowing him to not only raise more money but raise it in larger contributions—up to $500, or twice what the law prescribes.

It’s unclear how raising the cap will close the fundraising gap between the two candidates unless Grant gets a sudden influx of $500 contributions, since the issue is simply that more people have chosen to donate to Mosqueda.

The first time Grant requested an exemption from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, he argued that Mosqueda had raised more than the $300,000 cap imposed by the law, when independent expenditures made on Mosqueda’s behalf (but without coordination with her campaign) were added to the amount she had raised in conntributions. Grant’s campaign calculated that the total spending by Mosqueda’s campaign and on her behalf exceeded the cap by $118,000, and argued that “In digital advertising alone, $118,000 could reach hundreds of thousands of voters. Under the current spending cap, our campaign is constrained by our budget to respond to such expenditures.”
Less than a month after receiving his first exemption, Grant was back before the Commission, arguing that because Mosqueda has more donors than he does (4,952, with an average contribution of $83, compared to Grant’s 4,304, with an average contribution of $79), she has an unfair advantage over him. Once again, the amount Grant mentions is $118,000, although this time, it doesn’t include independent expenditures—it’s just how much Mosqueda has exceeded the $300,000 cap (which Grant initially petitioned to lift) on her own. The language, in fact, is identical: “In digital advertising alone, $118,000 could reach hundreds of thousands of voters. Under the current spending cap, our campaign is constrained by our budget to respond to such expenditures.” It’s unclear how raising the cap will close the fundraising gap between the two candidates unless Grant gets a sudden influx of $500 contributions, since the issue is simply that more people have chosen to donate to Mosqueda.
As she did last month, Mosqueda will have to follow up with her own petition to lift her contribution cap from $250 to $500 so that she can compete on an even playing field with Grant. She plans to do so next Monday.

3. Blankinship’s tweet did pique my interest, so I looked at the Times’ endorsements, and what I found was this: Out of 22 endorsements for this year’s general election, The Times endorsed a total of four women of color. Two were nonincumbents running for open seats—Jinyoung Lee Englund for state senate in the 45th District, and Janice Zahn for Bellevue City Council. Zahn is running against another person of color. So is Englund. Englund is an interesting choice to illustrate the Times’ support for women, given that she is opposed to abortion rights and even sent out numerous anti-Planned Parenthood and anti-choice tweets before she scrubbed her Twitter feed. Before moving into the 45th District in April, Englund was a lobbyist for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin in Washington, D.C. Her opponent, Manka Dhingra, is a moderate Democrat and a woman of color.

As for the two instances where the Times endorsed an woman of color who is an incumbent: The first, state Rep. Vandanna Slatter, is a Democrat with no Republican opponent, and the second, My-Linh Thai, has an opponent funded almost entirely by a group suing the Bellevue school board over football sanctions whose campaign, the Times wrote, was full of “red flags.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

 

Morning Crank: Mayor Gonzalez?

1. City council president Bruce Harrell took the oath of office as Seattle’s emergency mayor yesterday (OK, real mayor, but only for another two and a half months max), promising to announce by today whether he will continue to serve as mayor until voters elect a successor to former mayor Ed Murray, who resigned this week after a fifth man accused him of sexual assault. .

The stakes for Harrell are high, although perhaps not as high as you might think: Although serving as mayor until the election results are certified at the end of November would require Harrell to give up his council seat, rumors have swirled since his most recent election in 2015 that this term, Harrell’s third, would be his last. Harrell ran for mayor and lost in the primary in 2013, so remaining as mayor would give Harrell a short-lived opportunity to serve in the position he lost to Murray four years ago.

If Harrell does stay on as mayor, Lorena Gonzalez would be next in the (informal) line of succession for council president. If he decides to return to the council, the council would choose another council member to serve as mayor. While Tim Burgess is an obvious choice—he’s stepping down this year, to be replaced in January by either Jon Grant or Teresa Mosqueda—the fact that Burgess chairs the council’s budget committee inserts a political wrinkle into the decision. If Burgess becomes mayor, the chairmanship of the budget committee would pass to council freshman Lisa Herbold—a member of the council’s left flank who might be more inclined than the centrist Burgess to tinker with Murray’s budget to reflect more left-leaning priorities (like, say, reducing the emphasis on rapid rehousing in the Human Services Department’s budget).

So who does that leave? Gonzalez, who was the first council member to call on Murray to resign, appears to be the next in line. She’s running for reelection this year, and assuming she wins, would be able to go right back to being a council member when the results are certified in November

Harrell has said he will make his decision before 5:00 this afternoon.

2. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission dismissed a complaint by one of the losing candidates in the August primary election against Seattle City Council Position 9 incumbent Lorena Gonzalez. That complaint alleged that Gonzalez had deliberately misled the commission about how many open debates she had participated in before the primary and demanded that the commission fine her and force her to  return all the money she has received from voters in the form of “democracy vouchers.”

“If the Commission terminates the candidate’s participation in the Program, it will invalidate the choice of the more than 2,100 residents to date who have assigned their vouchers to Councilmember González,” commission director Wayne Barnett wrote in his recommendation to the commission. “The Program exists to empower residents to participate in elections in ways they have not been involved in the past. The Commission should be cautious about exercising the ‘nuclear option’ in a way that disserves one of the primary goals of the Program.”

Although the commission ruled against Gonzalez’ erstwhile opponent, Barnett’s recommendation letter raises interesting questions about the breadth of the initiative that instituted public financing of local elections, and could have implications for what campaign forums look like in the future.

The democracy voucher program requires any council candidate seeking voucher funding to participate in at least three forums at each stage of the election (primary and general) to which all candidates have been invited to participate. The complaint argued that because the losing candidate was not invited to some of the forums Gonzalez listed as qualifying events (including a “women of color” forum), she should have to return all her vouchers. This interpretation could require candidates to figure out who was invited to every potentially qualifying event they attend. Or it could mean that every single candidate must be invited to every debate, regardless of whether they are viable. In the mayor’s race, Barnett points out, that would have meant that every debate could have included all 21 people who filed for the position, including “Nazi shitheads” screamer Alex Tsimerman—a prospect that would have rendered the debates more or less useless for people hoping to learn anything about any of the six candidates who were actually viable.

3. Some people just can’t take a joke. And some people just can’t get a joke—even when you explain it to them. Case in point: Last week, I ran an item about a going-away gift from the mayor’s staff to longtime City Hall staffer (and Murray chief of staff) Mike Fong—a giant fake check for $3.5 million made out to the “Michael Fong Community Health Engagement Location.” (CHEL is bureaucratic code for supervised drug consumption sites.) As I wrote at the time, “The joke, concocted by Murray’s comms director Benton Strong, is a little obscure.”

Too obscure, apparently, for Neighborhood Safety Alliance member Jennifer Aspelund, who filed a records request on Friday, September 8 seeking “any monies allocated for Michael Fong community health engagement location center and any discussion of such center.”

The city’s response? “This location center does not exist; therefore, the Mayor’s office or any other departments do not have any responsive records.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: We Have an Obligation to Our Employees

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1. Three hours after he announced he was pulling the plug on a proposal for a citywide homelessness levy, Mayor Ed Murray’s lobby was inundated with protesters chanting, “No coal, no oil! We want our money back!” The group of about 40 Keystone XL Pipeline opponents was targeting the mayor because he agreed to sign off on a resolution expressing the city’s concern about doing business with banks that invest in the pipeline or the company that is building it, and committing the city to “look for meaningful ways to communicate these positions of the Seattle City Council to prospective financial institutions.”

The legislation was a heavily amended version of a proposal originally put forward by council member Kshama Sawant, which would have directed the city to divest itself from all banks that do business in any way with Keystone or TransCanada. As I noted in a post on that resolution last week, divesting from every bank that does business with companies that don’t mesh perfectly with the city’s progressive values could leave the city without a bank, and leave 10,000 city workers without paychecks. Today, council member Lisa Herbold took up that torch, noting pointedly both in the morning council briefings meeting and in front of a chambers packed with people holding “No Keystone XL” signs that there are only so many banks that meet all the current requirements to do business with the city.

Of 63 banks that are authorized to provide services to cities in Washington State, Herbold said, only 10 are eligible under state law to bid on the city’s services, and “we don’t know for certain that they are, because we have still other banking criteria,” like a rule saying that the city can only do business with banks that received a rating of “outstanding” under the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires investment in low-income communities. “We have an obligation to our employees to be able to pay them, and we need a bank in order to pay them, so we need to really work collaboratively with the executive in identifying which banking institutions can really reflect our values,” Herbold said.

Sawant countered by accusing all the council members who supported Herbold’s amendment of joining other politicians across the country who were “bought out by the oil lobby” and declaring, to cheers from the crowd, that the city has a “political and moral obligation to clearly oppose investment in such destructive projects,” and that “if there are no banks existing that will qualify, then we have to fight to set up a public bank, we have to fight to lift the state ban on banking with credit unions.”

Council member Rob Johnson, who noted that his prior job was as head of an environmental group, the Transportation Choices Coalition, countered that although he didn’t want to do business with banks that invest in pipelines, either, “We need to [make sure we] have real options for writing those 10,000 employees’ paychecks every two weeks, and because we don’t yet have a municipal banking option, and because we don’t yet have … the authority to work with local credit unions, I feel it is important to balance that fiduciary duty to our 10,000 employees alongside our environmental commitment.” The crowd booed loudly at that, but the council passed the resolution unanimously.

2. The intended consequence of the four $25 “democracy vouchers” that went out to every registered voter in Seattle in January is that regular people have a say in city council elections.

The perhaps unintended consequence is that just like people who contribute their own money to campaigns, people who contribute through the voucher program are on the record, and with a couple of clicks, you can find out exactly who your coworker, neighbor, or boss supported with their city-funded campaign dollars.

Wayne Barnett, director of the city’s Ethics and Elections Commission, says the city is still working to update the elections website so contributions will be tallied automatically, but for now, you can download a spreadsheet showing all the voucher contributions so far, and find out, among other things, which elected officials are already all-in—for themselves.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Trump Didn’t Give Me Enough Notice

anti-keystone-council1. An anti-Keystone XL Pipeline resolution proposed by council member Kshama Sawant’s resolution would direct the city’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services to come up with a plan to avoid doing business with the 17 banks that have invested in the pipeline. On Monday,  council members said they needed more time to look at the proposal, which Sawant sent out at 9:00 Monday morning hoping for a 9:30 discussion and a 2:00 full council vote.

Sawant’s resolution directs FAS “to investigate ways to establish contracting criteria to prioritize the City’s goals to avoid contracting for banking services to The City of Seattle with financial institutions that provide credit-level facilities or project-level loans to TransCanada.” At the council’s Monday briefings meeting, council member Sally Bagshaw said she felt “steamrolled” by Sawant’s last-minute proposal. “I appreciate the political stripes that we’re trying to show here. That said, I want  to make sure that we’re not making a political decision that’s going to have an negative impact on the fiscal health of the city,” Bagshaw said. To Bagshaw and other council members who said Sawant didn’t give them enough notice before introducing her resolution, Sawant responded, “Well, Trump didn’t give me enough notice” that he was approving Keystone construction.

Tim Burgess, chair of the council’s budget committee, pointed out that when the city decided to divest from Wells Fargo, which is financing the Dakota Access Pipeline, they took their time and “got over 10 legal opinions,” as opposed to passing the resolution the day it was introduced. Another difference between the two resolutions is intent: Originally, the reason the city moved to divest from Wells Fargo was because it committed fraud against its customers; the pipeline issue was tacked on later. That resolution committed the city to partnering with businesses that are “committed to and consistently demonstrate engaging in fair and responsible business practices and avoid conducting City business with partners that engage in criminal or systematic deceptive, fraudulent, or abusive business practices.” It was silent on the issue of banks that aren’t breaking the law, but merely do business with companies, like TransCanada, that the city opposes for political reasons.

It would be one thing if the city had a lot of banking options, and only some banks were “bad.” The problem, according to sources familiar with the proposal, is that insisting on ideological purity could leave the city without a viable banking option. If the city won’t do business with banks that lend to polluters, what justification will it have for turning around and working with banks that finance union-busting corporations, or companies that deny women birth control? The city is reportedly looking into options that would allow it to put some of its money in smaller banks, but state law mandates that the bulk of the city’s money be in large institutions that are stable enough to weather financial storms, to avoid putting city employees’ paychecks and pensions—not to mention many progressive city programs aimed at counteracting Trump Administration policies—at risk.

The council will take up Sawant’s resolution sometime in the next two weeks.

2. When voters passed Initiative 122  last year, creating a public financing system that gives every voter $100 in “democracy vouchers” to spend on the city council candidates of their choice, opponents predicted that businesses and labor would take advantage of the early money, holding “voucher parties” to encourage their members to donate en masse. (The initiative encourages early spending in two ways: It requires the city to mail vouchers out in January, when only the most organized candidates have declared they’re running, and actually funds only a fraction of the vouchers in circulation, creating an incentive for business and labor to anoint and fund their candidates early).

Labor and business groups haven’t thrown their weight behind any candidates yet, but voucher parties have come to pass. The first one is happening this Thursday, when a group of urbanist techies calling themselves “Sea Tech 4 Housing” meet at Optimism Brewing Company on Capitol Hill to support Teresa Mosqueda, one of 10 candidates running for citywide Position 8. The suggested donation: $100—or four $25 democracy vouchers.

3. While some local news stations are wringing their hands over the safety of children playing during the day near a temporary men’s shelter that doesn’t open until 9:30 at night, Operation Nightwatch is worried about where it will go next. The 75-bed men’s shelter was recently displaced from its longtime home in the International District’s Pearl Warren Building, after the city announced it was opening a new 24-7 low-barrier Navigation Center shelter at the site. Last week, the city told the Compass Housing-run shelter it could set up in the Next 50 Pavilion at Seattle Center until April 17, but it’s unclear what will happen after that; Human Services Department spokeswoman Meg Olberding says “We are calling on community members who might have space we can use to let us know, and we are combing our networks to try and find space.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: “Not Gonna Happen”

1024x10241. Update on an item earlier this week about the Washington State Democrats’ Executive Committee had about possibly reducing the salary of the party chair now that Tina Podlodowski has been elected to that position. According to several Democrats who were present at the meeting (including members of the executive board itself), the person who raised the possibility of reducing Podlodowski’s salary was executive board member Ed Cote, who suggested reexamining the salaries for both the chair of the party and its executive director. After some discussion, another male board member, Don Schwerin, reportedly asked Podlodowski point-blank if she was willing to take a pay cut; she said no. Folks I talked to who were in the room said they were “horrified,” “appalled,” and “shocked” at both Cote’s line of questioning and Schwerin’s request.

The former party chair, Jaxon Ravens, was paid about $120,000, according to board members, plus a car allowance.

Cote says he raised the question of Podlodowski’s salary as part of a broader conversation about whether both the party chair and executive director should be paid, and how much. But it wasn’t lost on many in the room that Podlodowski is only the second woman to ever serve as state Democratic Party chair—and that the board discussing the possibility that she didn’t deserve the same salary as her male predecessors, Jaxon Ravens and Dwight Pelz, was two-thirds men.

“I just brought up that when [Podlodowski] presents a [Party] budget, I thought it would be good that we have a conversation around the right administrative structure going forward,” Cote says. “We have a paid chair and a paid executive director, and many states have one or the other. … I wasn’t suggesting that the chair was paid too much. … I wasn’t trying to suggest that she was overpaid or anything of that nature.”

Podlodowski says she thinks it’s possible that Cote didn’t think about how his question would come across (and indeed, those who questioned Cote’s suggestion reportedly did so by discussing what similar positions paid at other large nonprofits, rather than observing that the whole conversation was sexist). But, she adds, “when someone did ask me if I would take a pay cut, I was like, ‘Not gonna happen,’ and I’m certainly not going to cut pay of anybody who’s female. But I am going to look at the budget, because it’s always important to make sure that we’re paying people appropriately.”

Podlodowski says that when she signed up for her new insurance plan, she learned that it didn’t cover children, only spouses. (Podlodowski and her wife have three children.) That’s another example, she says, of “why women should rule.”

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2. If you think you’re confused about what to do with the four “democracy vouchers,” worth a total of $100, that appeared in your mailbox earlier this year, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Seattle City Council members and staffed grilled Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett on some basic details of the program yesterday—details that were all laid out in the language of Initiative 122, which voters passed last year, but which, in fairness, you might have missed in the 15 pages of fine print. Some of the council members’ questions, answered:

  • Why is the city mailing vouchers to 508,000 people—are there even that many voters in Seattle? Under the initiative, vouchers must be mailed to every registered voter in the city, which includes “inactive” voters who have long since moved away.
  • Could the city cover the cost if all 508,000 voters tried to “spend” their vouchers at once? The cost of the program, which will cost the city $3 million a year, is limited by campaign spending limits, not the number of vouchers; I-122 specifically says that there must be enough in the budget to pay for three council races in which a total of 18 candidates run using voucher money exclusively. That works out to around $3 million.
  • Can organizations or employers bundle contributions from their members or employees and make a big contribution to a single candidate that way? Not that way—bundling, where a person collects many individual donations and then writes a big check for the entire amount—is illegal, but a campaign is free to ask the members or employees of a large group or company to spend their vouchers on a particular candidate.
  • Since the requirement to qualify for voucher funding is a minimum of 400 contributions of $10 each, couldn’t a candidate just get someone to write them a check for $4,000? No, because viability is determined by how many contributions (100 or more), not the total (a minimum of $4,000, but in all likelihood more).

3. All Home, the coalition that coordinates efforts to reduce homelessness in King County, used a different approach and a different vendor to conduct its point-in-time count of people living unsheltered this year, and homeless advocates like Tim Harris at Real Change have questioned one major change this year: Unlike in every previous year, All Home won’t announce the number of people it counted right away. Previously, All Home and its former partner, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, released the number the day after the count; this year, the number won’t be released until June. All Home says it needs the extra time to survey people experiencing homelessness to get a better count of people living in vehicles and tents.

The delay also isn’t sitting easy with Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw, who heads up the council’s human services committee. She said yesterday that she wrote a email to Putnam asking him for the raw count number now, figuring that even if a more accurate number is issued later, at least the city would have a baseline for comparison when discussing its strategy for addressing homelessness. “Mark, I’d love an informal update on how the count went and how you’re doing with data when you get a chance,” Bagshaw wrote. “It’s important that we have a baseline and provide my committee with some trend information.”