“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” the old saying goes. It seems kind of obvious, but it bears repeating…a lot. We can’t help ourselves – we’re suckers for the idea of “free.”
No place in Washington loves “free” like Seattle. It’s no surprise, then, that advocates for the city’s “democracy vouchers” program love to pitch it as a fun, free opportunity. Spending other people’s money feels like that.
Taxes fund political campaigns
Not familiar with the program? In 2015 Seattle voters approved a property tax levy to fund a political donations scheme. City voters are given four $25 “vouchers” that they can then donate to qualifying city candidates. This year the program is limited to at-large city council candidates and city attorney candidates, but it is set to expand to other city races in the future, including mayor.
Registered Seattle voters automatically receive $100 worth of vouchers in the mail. They can give all four $25 vouchers to one candidate or dole them out among many. The candidates then turn them into the city for campaign cash.
“Free” – scare quotes necessary
Since the vouchers just show up in your mail, unsolicited, it’s no wonder it feels like free money. One Seattle voter told MarketPlace, “It was like getting a little check from your grandma.”
But it’s not free. It’s paid for with property tax dollars. Renters and homeowners alike all pay the tax, though homeowners pay it more directly.
KING 5’s Natalie Brand hit the streets to ask Seattle voters about the program. An explicit goal of the campaign for democracy vouchers was increasing political participation by younger voters, so Brand sought out Millennials’ thoughts. She asked a pair in South Lake Union, “Do you normally donate to campaigns?” They do not, they said.
As she worked on putting a straw in a pricey Starbucks drink, one of the young women explained her thoughts on democracy vouchers: “I think you get people more engaged, and they’d be more willing to pay attention to what’s going on in the political environment. And – ‘cause it’s free money, why not?”
Free to choose? Guess not
Apparently some think Millennials will only participate more in democracy if given other people’s money (some of which is contributed by themselves) to hand over to politicians – “’cause it’s free.”
We hate to use the cliché of “X number of days forgoing pricey iced Starbucks drinks” equal a $25 political donation, but it’s a factor here. People control how they use their own money, and most choose not to give it to politicians. They could if that’s what they wanted.
So Seattle’s democracy vouchers program amounts to government choosing how to spend your money for you (with huge administrative costs built in). Since most voters choose not to spend their money on political campaigns, Seattle taxes them instead and sends them vouchers that can only be spent on political campaigns. That sets up a city-approved logic – “You’d be silly not to use your vouchers. And after all, they’re free.”
Shouldn’t we all be free to participate, or not, in our democracy, with our money and our vote? Some who object to being forced to subsidize political speech they disagree with are suing the city. Seattle homeowner Mark Elster said, “It doesn’t matter what political views you hold. This system is unfair to all of us because all of us that are paying property taxes are contributing to someone else’s political speech, involuntarily. We’re being compelled to do it, through government force, and that’s wrong.”
Meanwhile, most of those vouchers are already on a neglected mail pile or in the trash. In a way, the people ignoring the vouchers are continuing the same choice about participation as they made before. The key difference now is, they’re being taxed to fund other people’s participation.
But it’s no big deal, right? It’s free!