SEATTLE — In 2015, Seattle voters approved a plan to foil corporate political contributions, creating “democracy vouchers” that allow residents to assign public campaign funds to local candidates of their choice.
With the goal of amplifying the voices of regular people and diluting the influence of powerful donors, the voucher program has since drawn the interest of 2020 presidential candidates, such as Andrew Yang, who said Seattle’s system could be used nationally to “drown out the influence of megadonors.”
But in Seattle, the megadonors are back, this time with an even larger deluge of cash. Thanks in large part to the hometown tech giant Amazon, independent groups that receive bulk donations have already spent more money — $4.1 million — on next week’s City Council elections than they spent in the previous two decades of elections combined, according to campaign finance data.
Amazon’s aggressive bid to overhaul a council it has clashed with over taxes and the company’s giant corporate footprint has exposed the tensions between the Seattle region’s sometimes-competing identities. On the one hand, it is an innovative tech hub, home to some of the world’s most influential businesses and billionaires. On the other, the city has led efforts to lift up marginalized residents with a $15 minimum wage, strong support for unions and its unique experiment in public campaign funding.
“This election is about the very soul of Seattle,” Kshama Sawant, one of the council members who has clashed with Amazon, said in an interview. “The question is: Is Seattle going to become a playground for only the very wealthy, or is it going to be a city that serves the needs of ordinary people?”
Ms. Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative party who has railed against inequality and the power of corporations, had been a proponent of the democracy voucher program. Under the program, every registered voter receives four $25 vouchers, funded by property taxes, to send to their choice of candidates who agree to abide by spending limits.
But participation is not mandatory, and Ms. Sawant decided earlier this year that she needed to either opt out of the program she had supported or face the risk of being heavily outspent into defeat.
She was not the only one. Most of the 14 candidates running for seven seats on the City Council initially joined the democracy voucher program, but as Amazon and other big donors opened their checkbooks, nearly all of them ended up asking to be excused from the program’s spending limits.
The situation has prompted resentment among politicians in Seattle who had hoped the democracy vouchers might change things.
“The Seattle City Council is not the ‘Deal of the Day,’ Amazon. And we are not selling our Seattle City Council and our democracy to the highest bidder,” M. Lorena González, a council member who is not up for election this year, said at a news conference earlier this month in front of Amazon’s headquarters.
Supporters of the voucher program are now considering changes that would allow candidates who receive vouchers to raise more money in order to keep pace with the escalating cost of competition. And city leaders are drawing up new policy that could combat corporate money to an even greater degree — and potentially set up a new legal challenge that could reshape the national conversation on campaign finance reform.
Tensions With Amazon
Since its founding in the region a quarter century ago, Amazon has undergone breakneck growth in Seattle. But even as its urban headquarters sprouted in the city’s downtown, the company largely kept out of local politics.
Then, in 2017, amid struggles over housing affordability and rising homelessness, the City Council began discussing a plan to add a per-employee tax on large businesses in order to fund homelessness programs — a plan that could have cost Amazon, with some 50,000 employees in the city, more than $10 million per year. As the tax idea advanced, Amazon said that it would halt construction planning on one project and threatened to pull back on its plans to open additional office space in another tower.
Amazon’s threatening response drew a national backlash at a time when the company was exploring a second corporate headquarters elsewhere in the country. The council eventually approved the head tax but then, as opposition in the business community grew, abruptly repealed it. Amazon nonetheless followed through on its threat to abandon its plans for the additional office space.
Then came the current election campaign.
Amazon, its executives and other employees had donated about $130,000 to City Council candidates in 2015, the year voters approved democracy vouchers.
This year, the total has hit $1.6 million, mostly from the company to a local business advocacy organization that is backing a suite of seven council candidates — one incumbent, Debora Juarez, and six other candidates the business group considers to be less ideological and more willing to engage in dialogue.
The group has set its sights on defeating not only Ms. Sawant, but also Lisa Herbold, who traveled with another City Council member in January to New York, where Amazon was considering an important expansion. She talked to union leaders there and warned about housing and transportation problems associated with the company’s expansion in Seattle.
Four of the Seattle’s nine council members did not run for re-election this year.
While Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, is not among the donors, other top executives are, including Andy Jassy, chief executive officer of Amazon’s cloud computing service, and the company’s general counsel, David Zapolsky.
Mr. Zapolsky said in an interview that the current City Council was creating an atmosphere of polarization.
“There’s a level of invective, and what I think is an unfortunate tone of some of the dialogue, that just makes it impossible to engage productively,” Mr. Zapolsky said.
Mr. Zapolsky said the company was eager to engage on the issues facing the transforming city, including homelessness, transportation and climate change. And he said that while it was easy for politicians to criticize Amazon, there were other large spenders in the campaign.
“It’s a lot of different interests that are engaged in this election, including organized labor, which is donating funds that are of equal magnitude, if not more,” Mr. Zapolsky said.
Labor groups have given more than $1 million to various committees, and joining in those contributions has been Nick Hanauer, an early investor of Amazon who now advocates for economic equality.
That money has largely backed candidates in competition with Amazon’s slate, although some union members have at times complained that Ms. Sawant’s attacks on Amazon and other employers could cost workers jobs. Other companies, such as Expedia, Starbucks and Alaska Airlines have donated to the same political group as Amazon, although to a much smaller degree.
While Amazon opposed the head tax, it has embraced other regional priorities and taxes. Amazon has followed the city’s lead on the $15 minimum wage and adopted a similar threshold for workers around the country. This year, the company has also donated to help defeat a statewide initiative that seeks to limit transportation taxes.
Egan Orion, one of the candidates backed by Amazon’s business group, has called the donations in the council race a distraction. In an interview, he described himself as a progressive liberal and said he would like to adopt policies to increase taxes on Amazon and the wealthy. He rejected Ms. Sawant’s suggestion that he was beholden to the company.
“I think they would have supported anyone that wasn’t named Kshama,” Mr. Orion said.
Signs of Success
Political contributions around the country have historically been made by people more likely to be white, male and wealthy.
“Those kinds of representational biases translate into policy biases,” said Jennifer Heerwig, an assistant professor of sociology at Stony Brook University who researches campaign finance issues.
She and another researcher have examined the impact of Seattle’s democracy voucher program after the 2017 election, when the program was first implemented. They found that the people who used voucher donations were more diverse than cash donors, but they still didn’t mirror the city’s overall demographics. Professor Heerwig said they also planned to see whether the program diversifies the pool of candidates who run for office.
In the aftermath of the United States Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, which blocked limits on independent political spending for corporations and interest groups, Professor Heerwig said it was not surprising that Seattle was seeing more independent spending, whether there were democracy vouchers or not.
“We would still have Citizens United, but we wouldn’t have this citizen counterweight that comes in the form of democracy vouchers,” Professor Heerwig said.
This year, residents have assigned more than $2 million in vouchers to various candidates. Backed by a property tax levy, the city then provides funds to candidates who participate in the program and qualify by demonstrating thresholds of support, but the candidates must agree to stick to spending limits.
Under the plan, the city doled out up to $150,000 to each district council candidate. Candidates can seek to be released from the program’s spending limits if they demonstrate that competing expenditures are exceeding their budget.
This year, as money has flooded the race, 11 of the 12 general election candidates who participated in the voucher program have been released from the limits.
Alan Durning, who leads the nonprofit Sightline Institute and helped develop the democracy voucher program, said the program may need to be adjusted to allow candidates to raise up to $350,000 from vouchers. He said that independent expenditures in Seattle’s council races are catching up to the type of spending seen in congressional races.
Money from the vouchers doesn’t need to match those independent expenditures, Mr. Durning said, but candidates need enough funds to get a message out. “If we can get candidates to break through the noise and make their case, voters can decide,” Mr. Durning said.
But the City Council may consider more drastic action. Concerned that independent spending is undermining the voucher program, Ms. González said she would pursue a city ordinance that would ban political spending in Seattle elections by “foreign-influenced” corporations. That builds on federal law that prohibits foreign nationals from political spending in the United States.
Ms. González said that she believed Amazon, as a publicly traded company with a large number of shareholders around the world, would fall into her plan’s definition of a company with foreign ties. While the proposal may face a legal challenge, she believes such a rule would survive.
And she believes the council, at least as it’s currently comprised, is ready to back it.