This post was originally published by the Brennan Center for Justice.
In 2015, Seattle voters passed an initiative creating the nation’s first “democracy voucher” program through which each resident gets four $25 vouchers they can give to any candidate who agrees to abide by certain solicitation and spending limits. The law passed by a whopping 20-point margin, confirming that Seattle voters agree with the 85 percent of Americans who believe our campaign finance system needs a major overhaul. Now, however, a group called the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) has filed a lawsuit alleging the program violates the First Amendment. The people of Seattle (and others hoping to follow their example) should not be fooled. There is nothing wrong with this innovative new law. If anything, other cities and states should use it as a model.
PLF’s complaint alleges that Seattle’s voucher program “disfavors minority interests” since more popular candidates will receive more funding (through vouchers) than unpopular candidates. This charge is unlikely to go anywhere. Most notably, in its seminal 1976 decision, Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court upheld the presidential public financing system, which, like Seattle’s program, provides more money to candidates with more grassroots support (by matching the amount they raise in small contributions during the primaries). The Court did not so much as hint that amplifying the voices of small donors improperly “disfavor[ed] minority interests.” Following the Supreme Court’s lead, federal courts have routinely upheld state and city programs that do the same thing.
Upholding such programs makes sense. In Seattle, as in other jurisdictions with small-donor public financing, candidates have an equal opportunity to access public funds by appealing for support. Indeed, the distribution of funding is far less arbitrary than many other government programs. Allowing qualified voters to direct their equal share of public funds to candidates who meet the conditions of the voucher program does not create a First Amendment violation.
Perhaps recognizing the weakness of its basic claim, PLF places great emphasis on the fact that the voucher program, unlike other public financing programs, is funded through property taxes, claiming that it “forces Seattle property owners to subsidize campaign contributions.” But courts have routinely upheld programs financed by general or targeted taxes or fines, and this is but one type of government-funded expression.
Our tax dollars are used to pay the salaries of elected officials who espouse ideas many taxpayers abhor; pay for government advertising promoting programs with which many taxpayers disagree; and fund universities, museums, libraries and other programs that produce or contain speech that many taxpayers find objectionable. Short of eliminating government, the best response to this problem is advocacy for candidates, ideas, and programs that best represent one’s views and interests. The voucher program is designed to help more citizens do just that.
While PLF’s lawsuit lacks a strong legal foundation, it seeks to score political points by framing the voucher program as an assault on the speech of less popular candidates and property owners. In doing this, it ignores the reality that privately-financed elections across the country are dominated by a few wealthy individuals and businesses, who effectively drown out the voices of the majority of citizens across the political spectrum. The voucher program is designed to fight back by enabling broader participation in election funding so that elected officials will give more of their time and attention to a greater number of their constituents. Similar programs in New York City and elsewhere have succeeded, persuading candidates to rely principally on small contributions and encouraging more people to participate by giving amounts they can afford. Seattle’s program is likely to do the same. Rather than conjuring up imagined problems, we should be thinking about how to build on its success to ensure that all Americans have a renewed stake in our democracy.