By Joan Mandle
I. The lifeblood of our democracy is under threat.
Democracy is above all a process of citizen participation, with government accountable to the people. But it is precisely that necessary participation and accountability that have been weakened and eroded by big contributors who dominate the private financing of campaigns.
- Voter turnout for elections is far lower than in most other democracies. A turnout rate of only around 50% is typical, even for high-profile races.
- Cynicism about politics and government is rampant as people see: a) the influence of big contributors on laws and policy and b) the corruption scandals involving campaign contributions.
- The cost of running for office continues to escalate. Few citizens can afford the huge cost of running for office at any level of government.
- Uncontested and non-competitive elections have increased in frequency, with a re-election rate of incumbents that tops 90% in both federal and state races. Incumbents regularly out-spend challengers by margins of 4 to 1.
- In 2010, the Supreme Court reversed a 100 year-old ban on corporate and union expenditures on political speech, unleashing unlimited spending from these sources. The “Citizen’s United” decision has worsened the dominance of corporate influence in our democracy.
- In 2014, the Court’s McCutcheon decision raised the limit of individual contributions to national party and federal candidate committees from a little over $200,000 to over $3 million (essentially no limit at all on what one person can contribute). The Supreme Court has declared war on campaign finance reform and exponentially raised the power of individuals and corporations to control our elections, laws and democracy.
- The number of bright young people who want to spend their lives in politics or government service has declined as the price of participation has risen.
- Fewer than 1% of Americans contribute the vast majority of private money going to fund campaigns.
- Too many politicians are forced to spend up to 20 hours a week raising money rather than solving our country’s pressing problems.
- National polling has consistently shown that large majorities of the American people distrust the government because they believe that wealthy special interests have more influence in Washington and in state capitols than do voters.
- Polls also showed that over 2/3 of voters say we need changes to the way elections are financed.
II. What can we do?
In response there has emerged a pro-democracy movement, committed to deepening the democratic process in the United States. Fundamental to this movement is the struggle to change the way election campaigns are financed, especially by ensuring public financing for serious candidates. Fundamentally a democracy can only be as strong as its elections — elections in which many ideas are heard and where citizens actively engage by running for office, participating in debate, and voting.
Private money in elections undermines a truly democratic political process. Changing the way elections are financed is the first and most important step in resolving this shameful situation. If private money continues to dominate American politics, the desires of the affluent will control legislation and the rest of us will be ignored. If we change campaign finance laws, we will help create the real democracy most of us want — one in which laws and policy reflect the will of the majority of the American people. Democracy Matters’ motto is CHANGE ELECTIONS. CHANGE AMERICA.
III. What is wrong with the present system?
- Politicians, who depend on huge sums of money to run their campaigns, respond more to the concerns of wealthy donors and special interests than they do to the concerns of voters.
- Affordable health care policy has been held hostage to big contributors who fight reform.
- Protecting the environment is a low priority for legislators who take big campaign contributions from oil and energy companies.
- Providing more affordable college loans and grants is fought by banks and college-loan companies.
- Our foreign policy is too often influenced by the economic interests of big donors rather than by welfare of our country.
- Huge contributions by banks and the financial industry have ensured that real regulation of Wall Street has been blocked, while our economy has suffered.
- The safety of our food supply takes second place to the interests of companies that contribute millions to politicians every year.
- Funding for research and for higher education lags as college tuitions rise and legislators vote for tax breaks for big campaign contributors.
- Lobbyists representing wealthy contributors gain privileged access to elected officials, while ordinary citizens have to stand in line or rely on sending emails.
- Precious tax dollars are wasted in the form of pay-backs to wealthy special interests who have filled campaign coffers.
You name the issue, and it has a link back to political decisions made by elected officials who are indebted for campaign contributions to a small group of wealthy special interests.
Everyone knows there is something wrong – that the system is broken – but they think there is nothing we can do.
For specific information on federal campaign contributions (who gives how much to whom as well as reports and commentary on outrageous money and politics happenings) go to the Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org); for state-level information go to www.followthemoney.org.
IV. Is there a solution?
It is obvious that to sustain a democracy and solve the many problems we face as a country, we need to reform the way private money dominates our elections. Citizens throughout the country have been organizing together since the early 1990’s to correct these problems by instituting systems of public financing of elections, often called Voter-Owned Clean Elections (CE) or Fair Elections. The system is voluntary, and only candidates who show support from their districts can qualify. These reforms have proven to be both constitutional (the courts have ruled it does not harm free speech) and costs only a reasonable amount.
Reforms of campaign contribution laws for state-level races have passed in Connecticut (2005); Maine (1996); Arizona (1998) for state elections; and in the cities of Albuquerque, NM (2005) and Portland, OR (2005) for municipal elections. In addition, New Mexico passed CE for the state races for its Public Regulation Commission; New Jersey for two state Assembly districts; and North Carolina and New Mexico for Appellate and Supreme Court judges.
In Congress, the Fair Elections Act has been introduced to give Congressional candidates a way to run competitive races without depending on big corporate-based and wealthy donors. The proposed bill would create a hybrid public-financing system, with small donations as well as a public grants going to qualified candidates for the House and Senate. On-going fights for reform to make government accountable to citizens at both the state and federal level are getting traction and building all the time.
V. Fair Elections
- Ordinary citizens can run for office without depending on wealthy special interests.
- Candidates can run grassroots campaigns and spend their time talking with constituents rather than “dialing for dollars.”
- Faith in the electoral system can be restored as voters see that candidates are accountable to them rather than to wealthy special interests.
- The influence of lobbyists and special interests on legislation is reduced.
- Previously underfunded candidates can afford to participate. Ordinary people, previously unrepresented, can run for office and win, especially young people, low income citizens, and members of minority communities.
- Because more people can afford to run for office there are more competitive and fewer uncontested elections; more diverse candidates; more challengers; more choice for voters; more participation in politics.
- Everyday citizens – not just lobbyists – have access to their elected officials because politicians will no longer depend on big donors for their campaign funding.
- People will regain trust in the electoral system and in elected officials who will hear their voices.
VI. States and Cities
Legislation has been introduced at both the city and state level in many states limiting contributions and providing public funding for qualified candidates. Fair Elections type legislation successfully passed in places like Maine, Arizona, Connecticut, New York City and Los Angeles among others.
VII. Federal Legislation
At the federal level, legislation that would provide public funding for Congressional candidates has been introduced in almost every session of Congress, but has failed to pass both houses (so far!)
And in response to Supreme Court decisions on Citizens United and McCutcheon, a national movement to amend the Constitution has emerged. There are many such amendments suggested, but the basic idea is that Congress would be enabled to enact legislation to reverse dangerous Supreme Court decisions like Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United and rein in the unprecedented flood of secret money in the campaign finance system. Such an amendment would allow Congress to regulate the raising and spending of money, including so-called “Super PAC” independent expenditures, while giving states the same authority to regulate campaign finance at their level.