Prospect of “Musical Chairs” in 2021 Elections for Mayor, Council Prompts Debate Over Democracy Vouchers

By Erica C. Barnett

The 2021 election in Seattle could be the first in recent history where one or more city council candidates who are up for reelection decide to switch positions and run for mayor. The prospect of council members Lorena González or Teresa Mosqueda running against Mayor Jenny Durkan—or, if Durkan decides not to run, seeking an open mayoral seat—is interesting for election watchers, but a potential headache for the election watchdogs at the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

That’s because it’s unclear what the commission, which oversees the democracy voucher public campaign funding program, is supposed to do if a candidate raises money and collects signatures to qualify for the program while running for one race, then switches to another. For example, if a council member collected all or most of the 400 signatures and $10 contributions required to qualify for public funding (democracy vouchers) while running for her council seat, could she transfer that support and funding over to a mayoral run, or would she need to start all over? Or should there be some kind of middle ground, allowing a candidate to keep the money and signatures if she got written permission from each supporter?

This stuff is catnip to process wonks (guilty). But decisions over whether and how to let candidates move between races is the kind of thing that can change who runs and who doesn’t, which impacts the outcome of elections.

These are some of the hypotheticals the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission discussed at its meeting this week, in a preview of recommendations and new election rules that will take shape over the next two months. Commission director Wayne Barnett issued a memo, titled “Musical Chairs,” that described the voucher qualification conundrum along with two other hypothetical seat-switching scenarios.

In one, a candidate has already raised and spent $50,000 to run in one race before she switches to another; the question is whether that $50,000 should count against her total campaign fundraising limit, or if she gets to start running for the new position with “a clean slate.”

In the other, a candidate has already qualified for vouchers and raised $100,000 in public funding; the question, as in the first hypothetical, is whether she gets to transfer that money, whether she can transfer it with donor permission, or whether she has to start from scratch.

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Within all these hypotheticals, there are also sub-debates about whether the requirements should be different if a candidate switches within the same “class” of positions—from one citywide council seat to another, for example—rather than from one “class” to another, like a city council candidate who decides to run for city attorney or mayor. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which a donor supports a candidate for city council, but not for mayor, or where a donor supports a candidate for one position but supports a different candidate already running for another. In those cases, the donor might want to withdraw their funding.

In short: It’s complicated! And election officials feel a sense of urgency to come up with rules before the hypotheticals become very concrete. “With the three positions on the ballot this year”—mayor and city council Positions 8 and 9—”we feel like we would be remiss if we didn’t have a plan in place if and when it happens,” Barnett said during Wednesday’s meeting. “We don’t want to be making this up on the fly.”

This stuff is catnip to process wonks (guilty). But decisions over whether and how to let candidates move between races is the kind of thing that can change who runs and who doesn’t, which impacts the outcome of elections. This year, the debate will most likely be over González or Mosqueda, two incumbents who will have little trouble raising money no matter what the commission decides. In previous years, though, first-time candidates have complained vociferously about the difficulty of collecting hundreds of individual signatures and small donations to qualify for public funding, arguing that a system that requires candidates to collect hundreds of signed contributions (600 for mayor, 400 for at-large council seats and city attorney, and 150 for district-based council candidates) prevents first-time candidates from succeeding.

The commission seemed split on whether a candidate who switches positions should have to start collecting signatures and raising money from scratch. Commissioner Brendan Donckers argued that a candidate who switches races is making a “strategic” decision that should come with a cost. Requiring candidates who switch races to qualify all over again “incentivizes making a decision about what seat you’re going to run for early,” he said. “If your donor supports you for [one] race, in theory you should be able to get them to support you for a different race.”

Commission chair Nick Brown countered that since the point of democracy vouchers is to get ordinary people involved in elections, requiring candidates to collect all-new signatures and $10 contributions could create a financial barrier for candidates raising money from the low-income and nonwhite communities the voucher program is supposed to help. “Getting back to the spirit of this program—to involve people who haven’t been involved in elections—that $10 could be significant,” he said.

The issue of whether a candidate could hold on to voucher money led to a similar debate, although several commissioners suggested that a fair compromise might be requiring candidates to get permission from donors to transfer their voucher donations to a new race, as election rules already require for regular financial contributions

The group was fairly unanimous in opposing any rule that would give candidates multiple cracks at the contribution ceiling, arguing that it would be patently unfair to let a candidate build support and name recognition by spending money to run for one office, then reset the contribution limit to zero when they declare for another. As Barnett noted Wednesday, it’s unlikely (though possible) that a candidate could the full voucher contribution limit, which varies by position, by the campaign filing deadline in mid-May. 

The commission has until February (or so) to make a recommendation to Barnett and his staff, who will turn that recommendation into a rule that candidates will have to follow next year and in subsequent elections, most likely by March. Neither González nor Mosqueda has filed their 2021 campaign paperwork yet; Durkan has, but has only around $300 in the bank.

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