A Guide to Democracy Vouchers

by Mark Van Streefkerk


If you’re a registered voter and Seattle resident, you’ve probably already received your Democracy Vouchers in the mail. You’ll recognize them in that the envelope looks a bit like your election ballot, though they come from the City of Seattle. The Democracy Vouchers Program automatically distributes four $25 vouchers to all registered voters that can be used to support participating candidates for City of Seattle office. You can participate in the voucher program even if you’re not registered to vote. The idea behind the program is to provide public funds to candidates who might otherwise not have the financial resources to run a campaign and to allow more Seattle residents to donate to candidates they support.

Maybe you’ve already used your vouchers, maybe you’re unsure how to use them, or even accidentally threw them in the recycling bin. (Don’t worry, there’s an easy fix for that!) The following is a guide on how to use Democracy Vouchers, including how to receive them in any of 18 languages and where you can find out more information about each candidate. 

Here’s a Quick Overview

Democracy Vouchers are automatically mailed to every registered voter in Seattle starting on February 9. You can register to vote or change your address here

You can still apply for the program even if you’re not a registered voter. To be eligible, you have to be a Seattle resident over the age of 18 and a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or a lawful permanent resident or green card holder. Each eligible person receives four $25 vouchers. Vouchers can only be used for City of Seattle candidates. In this year’s election cycle, that includes candidates for mayor, the two City Council at-large positions, and the City attorney’s race. 

Similar to writing a check, just fill in the name of the candidate you want to support, sign and date the voucher, and return it by mail via the prepaid envelope. You can also give the voucher directly to a candidate’s campaign or set up an account via the online portal and use your vouchers electronically. 2021 vouchers can be used from February 9 to November 30, but using them sooner rather than later is preferred so that candidates can access the funds for expenses such as websites, campaign signs, and promotional materials. If you’ve lost your vouchers or need to request them in a different language, fill out the form on this site

Registered voters who are incarcerated and houseless people are eligible to use the Democracy Voucher Program. “You may register at a location where you spend a substantial part of your time or pick up mail,” said Annie Tran, the Democracy Voucher Program’s senior public relations specialist. “This could be a previously permanent address, shelter, or similar place.” 

For questions about specific situations, to replace a lost voucher, or to request one in a different language, email democracyvoucher@seattle.gov or call (206) 727-8855. 

Some Common Misconceptions

Using Democracy Vouchers is not the same as voting. You still need to vote in the primary and general elections. 

You can’t sign your own name and give yourself the voucher money, unless you are running for office and have completed the qualifying process with the Democracy Voucher Program.

Sometimes the vouchers are mistaken for the Fresh Bucks Program. “This year we’ve noticed an influx of phone calls associating our program with the Fresh Bucks program,” said Tran. “Fresh Bucks look pretty similar: laid out in certain ways but different branding.” 

The History of Democracy Vouchers

Administered by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, the Democracy Voucher Program was launched in 2015 as one of many reforms included in the citizen-led Honest Elections Seattle Initiative I-122. The voucher program has a two-part goal: to create a new public funding source to assist any resident in Seattle who’s running for office and to allow more residents to donate to local candidates. “A lot of this stemmed from the purpose of, ‘We want a more representative government.’” Tran explained.

The project is funded through a property tax levy, which was also part of the Honest Elections Seattle initiative. The levy costs the average household in Seattle about $8 per year, with a maximum of $3 million per year to be collected over the next 10 years. According to Tran, before the Democracy Voucher Program, about 1%–2% of Seattle residents donated to local campaigns. Over the last two election cycles, that number has increased to about 8%. “Seattle is now one of the cities with the highest number of local people donating to local campaigns,” she said. 

This year, since municipal elections are only held once every two years and funds left unused carry over, there’s $6.8 million in public funding available for candidates in the Democracy Voucher Program.

Candidates

The Democracy Voucher Program is optional for candidates. Each candidate must meet certain qualifications if they choose to use the program, such as collecting a certain number of signatures of support and small contributions of at least $10 (600 are required for mayor, 400 for at-large Council positions and city attorney, and 150 for district Council positions). There is no cap on cash donations they can receive, but to be eligible for the program, there are limits on how much candidates can fundraise as a whole. Mayoral candidates, for example, have a cap of $800,000 for the general election, inclusive of all cash and Democracy Voucher contributions. 

You can find out about the candidates participating in the Democracy Voucher Program, including introductions in 18 languages, here

Democracy Voucher Outreach Fund

In the last two election cycles, the Democracy Voucher Program launched the Democracy Voucher Outreach Fund. The fund budgets a total of $225,000 to disperse to eight organizations to help with outreach in harder-to-reach communities. “We’re working very closely with [the eight organizations] getting materials out to community, hosting virtual Zoom meetings with interpreters, and providing general education about how to use this program,” Tran said. 

Unrelated to the Democracy Voucher Outreach Fund, King County Elections and Seattle Foundation recently announced a pledge of $950,000 to 30 community organizations through the Voter Education Fund (VEF). Applications are open to organizations that will provide voter outreach and education, especially to populations that have faced historic voter suppression. Find out more about the VEF and how to apply here.  

Editor’s Note: We updated one of Annie Tran’s quotes in this article after publication, by request from Tran, to ensure that the meaning was clear to readers.


Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist and freelance writer living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. He often writes about specialty coffee, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website at markvanstreefkerk.com and follow him on Instagram at @markthewriter. 

Featured Image: Seattle Democracy Vouchers (Photo: Mark Van Streefkerk)

Before you move on to the next story …
Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. 
Support the Emerald!