New voucher rules coming in hot!
New voucher rules coming in hot! Nathalie Graham

This week the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) unanimously approved rule changes to increase transparency around the collection of Democracy Vouchers, the taxpayer-funded program meant to stimulate engagement in elections.

Under the new rules—which the SEEC still needs to finalize—campaigns must use badges to identify volunteers and paid campaign workers. All representatives of the campaign must tell people that they are seeking vouchers, describe how vouchers work, and name the campaign for whom they're working.

Rule violators will lose voucher money.

During the meeting, representatives from one campaign worried about how the rules may impact volunteers.

The SEEC proposed the new rules after The Stranger reported on claims of paid voucher collectors using misleading pitches. In Wednesday's SEEC meeting, several commissioners said the report concerned them and that the onus should be on campaigns to make sure these transparency issues don't happen again.

Wayne Barnett, the executive director of the SEEC, said that the transparency issues highlighted in The Stranger report were a symptom of the monetization of the voucher program as the program grows.

This was the first year mayoral campaigns could use the voucher program, which launched in 2017. As a result, this time around, there's more money padding campaign pockets. And, with more familiarity around how vouchers work, candidates are trying to maximize their voucher potential. That means staffing up crews of volunteers, contracting with canvassers, and strategizing how to collect the most vouchers.

"What we're dealing with here is there are all kinds of incentives at work," Barnett explained. "There are incentives for the campaigns to collect as many vouchers as they can, there are also incentives for the contractors who are being paid for each [voucher] form that they gather. How do we create an incentive that produces the outcomes that we want? Democracy vouchers collected and given in a way that makes people feel valued and doesn't harm the program?"

Barnett said that the transparency transgressions the SEEC has seen "in the past two [election] cycles" are a result of this monetization.

"I don't want to deny that that is the reason that we're here today talking about how to make this work better," Barnett said in the meeting.

The SEEC said that the rule changes came out of concerns that mayoral candidate Andrew Grant Houston's contracted democracy voucher collectors attracted voters to sign over their vouchers with misleading pitches. In one recording sent to The Stranger, the voucher collector told a voter that their vouchers would go toward housing the homelessness. The paid contractors did not have badges or any materials identifying themselves as part of Houston's campaign other than voucher forms with the candidate's pre-printed name.

According to René LeBeau, the Democracy Voucher program manager, the SEEC received a handful of calls from voters asking for help finding their vouchers, only to discover that the voter had already allocated their four vouchers to a campaign.

"People aren't sure what they signed. Maybe they were signing onto an idea they agreed with, but weren't ready to assign to a particular candidate," LeBeau said.

Really, the SEEC commissioners feared that the public lacked a general knowledge about what democracy vouchers were and which campaigns they're good for. In the meeting, commissioners proposed adding that information to the bottom of the voucher forms in addition to implementing the new rules.

"These rules will clarify how voucher conversations go between campaign representatives and voters," LeBeau said.

Any campaigns who violate the rules could lose voucher money.

While Alex Koren, the campaign manager for Lorena Gonzalez's mayoral campaign, supports increasing transparency within the voucher program, especially when it comes to paid campaign staff or hired contractors, he told the SEEC that he worried how the new rules could impact volunteers.

Volunteers are often young people, or people who choose to participate in the democratic process on their own volition, Koren said. They're not officially trained staff who will necessarily be well-versed in the new transparency rules. What if they make a misstep and, as a result, the campaign is punished?

"My concern is there could be instances where a volunteer... may forget their badge and may collect [vouchers] anyway, [or] they didn't read the rules closely enough," Koren said. Under the new rules, the vouchers that volunteer collected could be called into question, or potentially thrown out. "With volunteers, I would hate to see someone who is participating in the Democratic process then see that work essentially punished by having vouchers taken from their candidates."

Koren asked for leniency for volunteers under these new rules. This sparked a whole discussion about who should be responsible for a volunteer's actions. Ultimately, Barnett said that he would exercise discretion on a case-by-case basis for violations, implying that he might be more lenient with volunteer transgressions.

The SEEC also approved a rule change that would stop allowing campaigns to host online voucher forms after the state and King County lift social distancing requirements. While some proponents of the online forms believe ending that policy will impact accessibility, Barnett believes that it goes against the whole idea of the voucher program.

"The purpose is to get people out in their community to mingle with people and get vouchers," Barnett said. "I'm reluctant for [online voucher collection] to go on. If we're all out at bars, restaurants, and the beach it'd be a shame if this rule was continuing."

Barnett will make the call on that decision when the government and county update their recommendations. Gov. Jay Inslee currently plans to fully reopen the state on June 30, but that date could come earlier if more people start getting the jab. Maybe that new lottery will speed that along?

The SEEC's rule changes should go live on Monday after being filed with the City Clerk's office, LeBeau said in an email.