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SEATTLE — Ami Nguyen is funding her run for city council by going door to door in immigrant neighborhoods.
Normally, that might not sound like a winning strategy. But thanks to Seattle's Democracy Voucher program, which allows voters to request four vouchers worth $25 each to give to candidates of their choice, Nguyen has already brought in $57,000 in donations to her campaign.
Seattle voters approved the voucher program in 2015 to introduce public finance for elections and help reduce the impact of corporate money on local politics. It's funded through a $3 million-a-year property tax, which costs each Seattle homeowner about $8 per year.
Nguyen figures that without this public funding option, she would have struggled to raise even half what she did so far.
The program is surprisingly open: Even city residents who can’t vote are allowed to request vouchers to support their favorite candidates.
But there's a catch. In order to cash in Democracy Vouchers, candidates have to sign a pledge that they won’t raise more than $75,000 in cash and voucher donations combined during the primary election. If they win the primary, that limit increases to $150,000 total for the entire cycle, including the general election. Other requirements range from agreeing to not take donations more than $250 to taking part in voter forums.
Most candidates don't have a problem with this, and all of Nguyen’s competitors in District 3 have agreed to be part of the program — except one.
Kshama Sawant is the incumbent and the first socialist to win a seat on the city council in over a century. Sawant says she believes in public funding for elections in principle but that it wasn't appropriate for her.
“For us to have signed up for Democracy Vouchers knowing that there's going to be an engulfing of this district by corporate money would have been to ask us to fight against Amazon with one hand tied behind our back," she said.
Nguyen hopes voters will take notice of who is — and who isn't — participating in the voucher program when they head to the ballot box for Seattle’s Aug. 6 primary.
Progressives across the country will also be watching. Democratic hopeful Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has been advocating for a nationwide version of the Democracy Voucher program.
VICE News went to Seattle to see whether local politicians think this program could finally get big money out of politics.
This segment originally aired July 25, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.