Seattle Taxpayers Ask Supreme Court to Overturn Public Campaign Finance System

March 18, 2020 Updated: March 18, 2020

Seattle taxpayers are asking the Supreme Court to review a public campaign financing system in local elections that they say compels them to provide funding for political candidates against their will by way of a “democracy voucher” program.

The justices are expected to consider the petition for certiorari on March 20, according to Ethan Blevins, a staff attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), who represents Seattle property owners Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon, in the case known as Elster v. Seattle. PLF is a public interest law firm based in Sacramento, California.

“When individuals are forced to fund other individuals’ private speech, it violates their rights of conscience under the First Amendment,” Blevins told The Epoch Times in an interview.

“The bottom line here is that the First Amendment includes the right to speak but also includes the right not to speak. You should have a right not to speak.”

PLF sued in hopes of overturning the local ordinance mandating public campaign financing. Under Seattle’s “democracy voucher” program, each city resident receives four $25 vouchers to support eligible candidates for local political office. The money to fund the program comes from a special tax on property. The lawsuit argues that these compelled subsidies violate the First Amendment right to refrain from speaking—or funding the speech of another person.

Seattle enacted this voucher system after voters approved Initiative 122. The measure was touted at the time as “giving more people an opportunity to have their voices heard in our democracy,” and as “vital to ensure the people of Seattle have equal opportunity to participate in political campaigns and be heard by candidates, [and] to strengthen democracy,” the city stated in legal documents.

The law went into effect in 2017. The initiative added an “Honest Elections Seattle” subchapter to city law, which introduced several reforms. The city codified much of the initiative in the Seattle Municipal Code.

The first vouchers, paid for by property owners by way of a tax on their land, were distributed to residents who then used them to contribute to eligible candidates for local city offices. There is no refund mechanism or exemption for conscientious objectors.

Some property owners, including Pynchon, own property within the city and are subject to the tax even though they reside outside the city limits and are themselves not eligible to receive vouchers. Elster and Pynchon, the petitioners in the case, both object to bankrolling political speech that they don’t want to support, according to PLF.

The trial court ruled against the taxpayers, as did the Washington Supreme Court on appeal in July 2019. The petition seeking review of that decision was filed with the Supreme Court in November 2019.

Blevins was sanguine about his chances at the high court.

“It’s always a long shot at the Supreme Court,” he said. “The question is whether it gets granted. If it is granted, then we have a very good chance at reversing that decision.”

“I think this petition is more likely to interest the court than the average petition” because of the court’s interest in the First Amendment and the compelled subsidy doctrine, he said.

Roger D. Wynne, assistant city attorney for Seattle, declined to discuss the details of the case when contacted by The Epoch Times. He said the opposition brief the city filed with the court “speaks for itself.”

“This Court should deny the Petition,” that brief states. “Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program does not merit this Court’s attention because it is a new, one-of-a-kind program that rests on a minimal tax.”

The brief emphasized that the voucher program is “the first and only of its kind. No other voucher program exists in the nation. Other jurisdictions have considered such programs, but none has enacted one.”

The state Supreme Court noted that the program “resembles other content-neutral ways the government facilitates political speech, for example, when the government distributes voters’ pamphlets,” the city’s brief stated.

That court also found that the program “cannot show the tax individually associated them with any [particular] message,” according to the document.