2017 marked an innovative new program for Seattle elections: the notion of a "Democracy Voucher" program.
Designed to drive citizen engagement, the "vouchers" are publicly funded coupons that voters can sign over to candidates running for the office of Mayor, City Attorney or City Council – thus helping those candidates finance their campaigns, and allowing citizens who might normally not be involved in campaign financing to help shape the trajectory of the elections.
The project has far-reaching implications: how local elections are run and financed; how marginalized populations can be more involved in who becomes a candidate; and certainly how public funds are used.
But the initiative was also a challenging project management effort: integrating voter rosters, public funding, and educational efforts to help citizens learn about the new program.
Join us November 14 to get a behind-the-scenes view at how this project was launched and managed, as well as the trials and tribulations from Solution Selection and implementation to the success of the program.
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Tell us a bit about the backdrop to how the “Democracy Voucher” program came to be.
Rene LeBeau: In the November 2015 General Election, City of Seattle voters passed “Honest Elections Seattle” Initiative 122. In that initiative, several campaign finance reforms were enacted, the most significant of which was the Democracy Voucher program.
Proponents of the initiative see Democracy Vouchers as a way to increase resident engagement in the entire electoral process by turning every resident into a potential donor. Historically in Seattle, only about 2 percent of the residents donate to campaigns and now, nearly everyone can.
Whatever we implemented had to always consider the intention of the initiative –
to encourage and increase participation.
JCH: This project sounds like a Herculean effort! Without giving the whole webinar away, share with us some of the high-level steps you had to think through to implement this project.
Rene: There were three absolutes. The first was that the vouchers had to hit the mail on January 3, 2017, per the initiative and it was not a movable date. The technology system we used to track the vouchers and the printing/mailing process had to be designed together.
The second was that whatever system we used to issue and track the vouchers, and whatever we mailed out to residents, had to completely account for any spending of the public dollars that fund this program.
The third was that whatever we implemented had to always consider the intention of the initiative – to encourage and increase participation. For instance, all key program materials had to be available in 15 languages. To be effective, we first had to find out what people needed to know.
We literally started with post-it notes stuck to the wall, broke down the initiative requirements and mapped the voucher flow. We mapped standard paths, exceptions paths, and kept a log of all the items we needed to address over time. If it didn’t need to be solved by January 3, it could wait.
This work started essentially in March 2016 and had to be completed by December of the same year.
Historically in Seattle, only about 2 percent of the residents
donate to campaigns and now, nearly everyone can.
JCH: What in your previous experience helped prepare you for this kind of project?
Rene: I managed King County Elections ballot processing workgroup, the largest vote-by-mail jurisdiction in the nation. There I reconciled ballots across three distinct technology systems through 5 processing steps. We used continuous improvement techniques such as lean to map processes for improvement and ensure customer service needs are met. I also have experience analyzing legislation and ensuring implementation is compliant.
JCH: Knowing that, at the time of this writing, the election isn’t over yet, what are some early results or metrics you can share about how this program has been received both with citizens and with the candidates?
Rene: I would say some early results that we can quantify includes there has been an increase in the number of people within the city of Seattle contributing to campaigns. Traditionally only 1-2% of the population in the city has donated to campaigns. But there's one race, in particular — an open seat this year — where we have already seen double if not triple the number of contributors in the city of Seattle and these contributions are coming from democracy vouchers.
So, one of the goals of the program is simply to increase the number of people who are giving to campaigns and we are seeing that that has already increased this first year. This is because of the addition of democracy vouchers.
JCH: Playing consultant for just a little bit, let’s assume another local government agency has heard about what Seattle is doing and is curious about implementing a similar project. What are some considerations they should think through before proposing such a project?
Rene: I would think about the general public's awareness about your topic, and about really any government topic, and specifically campaign financing. Think about what people do and don't know about campaign financing. Think about what those who are not part of the existing political structure do and don't know about running for office, and then plan as much education and training as you can. When you're planning education and training, think about the different communities that you're trying to reach. Try to be forward-looking in what that education and training plan should look like, how to meet the needs of those individual communities, and ask for help. For example, one of the things that we have set up is an intentional outreach program for folks with language and cultural barriers to traditional participation.
If your program is new for your department, new for your city, potentially new for your residents, try to remain very adaptive and open to feedback. We have conducted feedback check-ins at multiple times throughout this year, our first implementation year as a follow-up to focus groups leading into this year.
Another consideration is this particular program is funded with property tax dollars, a dedicated fun. As the person responsible for this implementation budget, I have had to be very deliberate, very careful in my spending. I make sure that any dollar that I payout to a campaign can be traced back to a valid voucher assigned by an eligible Seattle resident.