Money and wealth in the United States is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few – mostly older white males. They are the less than 1% who disproportionately fund political campaigns, deciding who runs, who wins, and what they vote for. It is no wonder, then, that our government’s policies and laws reflect their priorities, and that our elected officials overwhelmingly come from a similar demographic.
- People of color make up 31% of the population but only 11% of elected state legislators and 14% of Congress.
- Candidates of color have a more difficult time raising money and therefore are typically underfunded.
- Civil rights enforcement in our country has lagged.
- The greatest amounts of campaign cash come from neighborhoods where wealthy, non-Hispanic white populations dominate.
- Many states have passed voter suppression laws restricting access to the vote by poor people, especially people of color, as well as students and senior citizens.
- The United States has a higher percentage of its citizens in jail than any other country the world. Mass incarceration in the United States affects people of color the most. African Americans are 13% of the US population, but 38% of prison inmates; Latinos are 17% of the US population, but 33% of prison inmates; White comprise 63% of the US population, but 58% of prison inmates.
- The private prison industry makes billions of dollars of profit each year, and is a major donor to election campaigns.
Civil rights refers to the equal treatment of all citizens irrespective of race, sex, or other class. It refers to the promise of equal opportunity to get a job, to attend good schools, or live in the neighborhood of one’s choosing. It also refers to the promise of fair and equal political representation—the notion of one person, one vote — that all voices are equal in the creation and carrying out of the law.
But many years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, our nation is far from this reality. In the United States, people of color have lower incomes and fewer financial assets than whites. They control fewer business interests and are disproportionately represented among those living in poverty. Thus, when it comes to running for office, people of color typically lack access to personal wealth and networks of large donors. This puts them at a great disadvantage in our political system where the cost of running for office constantly increases and where, in the vast majority of cases, the candidate spending the most money wins.
What’s more, because large political donations carry with them greater accessibility to politicians, the voices of regular citizens, who have less money to give, often are drowned out by the voices of the rich.
But there’s hope…
Publicly funded elections hold the promise of changing this imbalance. Where publicly funded elections exist today, in places like New York City, Maine and Connecticut, it is possible for candidates of color and others of modest means to compete financially—even against candidates who run depending on large private contributions.
The public financing system in Arizona is a good example. There, the percent of candidates of color has increased each election since 2000, when the program was introduced. And the percent of candidates of color who use public financing for their campaigns has jumped substantially each year.
In fact, candidates of color use public financing to a greater degree than their white peers. Many say the availability of public funding was an important factor in their decision and ability to run for office. In a survey of candidates of color by the Fair Elections Institute, an overwhelming number said they could not have afforded to run without the availability of public funds.
Increasingly, the fight for publicly financed campaigns is seen as a critical component of the broader struggle for racial justice and civil rights. National organizations like the national NAACP and others have endorsed public financing as an important way to empower candidates of color. It is a critical step within the broader agenda of equality. Public financing campaign reform is the first step to giving back democracy to all the people.
Publicly funded elections play a critical role in creating a government of, by and for the people, rather than the big funders. The movements for campaign finance and civil rights have a similar goal —to develop a political/electoral system whose outcomes are determined not by wealth or race, but by notions of fairness, justice, equality and democracy.