The city of Seattle has just embarked on an unprecedented experiment in campaign-finance reform that forces property owners, through a new property tax, to sponsor the campaign contributions of other city residents. The city attracted nationwide attention in 2015 when it passed the first “democracy voucher” program, which is just now under way. The Pacific Legal Foundation, representing two property owners subject to the tax, has sued the city, arguing that the First Amendment forbids the city from compelling property owners to fund viewpoints they oppose.
At the start of this year, Seattle began mailing out four $25 vouchers to registered voters. Non-voters and even non-citizens can receive vouchers, too, upon request to the city. The vouchers can be used for only one purpose: campaign contributions for local elected office.
The idea is to give everyone a voice in politics — but at whose expense? Heralding the arrival of the vouchers, The Stranger — a left-leaning Seattle paper — published a gleeful article: “How to Get Your Free Money from Seattle’s New Public Campaign Financing System.” It sported an image of money falling from the sky into the hands of waiting voters.
But that money doesn’t rain down from above; it comes from the pockets of property owners, who are designated as the cash cows for other people’s political opinions.
This compelled subsidy for political donations violates the First Amendment. Freedom of speech embodies not only the right to speak, but also its corollary: the right not to speak. This includes the right to refrain from funding the speech of another person. After all, money talks, and when your money goes to promote a cause you don’t believe in, you’re the victim of political ventriloquism. The U.S. Supreme Court has called this a “bedrock principle” of the First Amendment — “that, except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.” This speech tax, by forcing Seattle property owners to support the political views of their neighbors, tramples upon this bedrock principle.
The Supreme Court has upheld neutral public campaign funding in the past, but the democracy-voucher program is an altogether different beast. Since voucher recipients decide which candidates get this money based on their political preferences, the speech tax undermines dissenting views and entrenches popular ones. Unlike neutral public campaign-funding schemes, the voucher program smacks of partisan inequality. As the money flows according to the preferences of Seattle residents, candidates who subscribe to the dominant political view will receive the most largesse. Minority candidates will get outfunded. This does not cultivate the equality of ideas that the democracy-voucher program purports to champion — quite the opposite, in fact.
The Supreme Court has upheld neutral public campaign funding in the past, but the democracy-voucher program is an altogether different beast.
Even worse, the property owners compelled to pay for these political donations will tend to be among the crowd with minority viewpoints. Take, for instance, a major political issue in Seattle: rental housing. Seattle is a city of tenants; 54 percent of Seattle households rent. Seattle politicians have catered to this major constituency through recent measures like a renters’ commission, caps on move-in fees, and the mayor’s recent proposal to prevent landlords from rejecting renters because of a criminal history. For the most part, these measures clash with landlords’ political and economic interests.
Yet landlords and other property owners must now foot the bill for political speech that favor these kinds of measures. Take Jon Grant’s campaign for city council. Grant, the former director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, is a committed tenant advocate. If elected, he’ll pursue policies such as tenant collective-bargaining rights and rent control that will further undermine landlords’ interests. Grant has received $129,000 in voucher money, doubtless from many renter constituents. But landlords and other property owners are the real, involuntary source of that money; they’re forced to fund a candidacy at odds with their rights and basic interests.
We shouldn’t shrug off this problem just because we might like the viewpoints favored by the vouchers, or because we can’t work up sympathy for property owners. Reserving freedom of speech for popular views would obliterate the core purpose of the First Amendment — to shelter the dissident. Yet the speech tax forces the dissident to power the megaphone of the majority.
It gets worse. Plenty of mom-and-pop landlords who rent out Seattle property live in surrounding King County. They have a stake in Seattle politics, but as non-residents, they can’t receive vouchers themselves. A landlord who has owned a house in Seattle for 20 years can’t get vouchers, yet she must pay for the campaign contributions of a University of Washington freshman who moved into the city last month.
We treasure the First Amendment because it upholds human dignity — the power to shape our identity by what we believe and express. That dignity is sullied by a government that forces its people to serve as unwilling vessels for beliefs that repel them. As Thomas Jefferson said, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” The supporters of the voucher program want to force property owners to underwrite partisan political donations in the name of democracy. I don’t think that word means what they think that word means.