MOVING FORWARD ON CAMPAIGN FINANCE

ABSTRACT: A serious effort for campaign finance reform is moving forward in New York State. The citizen / public campaign financing system that is in place in New York City is a great model for the state’s efforts and others.

We need campaign finance reform because, for example, in the 2012 federal election campaigns over $7 billion was spent with the bulk of the money coming from wealthy individuals and corporations. One third of the roughly $1 billion spent by groups other than the candidates’ campaigns themselves was secret funds anonymously funneled through front groups created to launder the money and hide its source. The voices of average citizens – the 99% of us – are drowned out in the campaigns and in policy making by the megaphones and mega-dollars of the wealthy. Money in campaigns does matter. In 2012, more than 80 percent of US House candidates and two-thirds of Senate candidates who outspent their general election opponents won. As Justice Brandeis stated, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

New York City has a system of citizen funding for campaigns for city offices. It provides matching public funds that give candidates the opportunity to run for public office without dependence on large contributions from wealthy donors. Participants in these city races are getting the majority of their funding from a broad spectrum of small contributors, while candidates for the state legislature from the same area, without the citizen funding system, get the majority of their funding from large contributors.

At least 10 states and 7 cities have citizen / public campaign financing for at least some elections. You can find information on campaign financing and whether there is a reform effort in your state at the Public Campaign website (http://www.publicampaign.org/).

Citizen / public campaign financing is an essential step in making our elected officials accountable and responsive to the 99% of us, as opposed to wealthy campaign contributors.

FULL POST: A serious effort for campaign finance reform is moving forward in New York State. The citizen / public campaign financing system that is in place in New York City is a great model for the state’s efforts and others. [1]

We need campaign finance reform because, for example, in the 2012 federal election campaigns over $7 billion was spent. We have the best democracy money can buy and the bulk of the money came from wealthy individuals and corporations. Of course this means it isn’t a democracy at all, for the golden rule of US politics is that he who provides the gold, rules.

Each of the presidential candidates raised and spent over $1 billion. President Obama broke all records by attending a fundraiser on average every two and a half days throughout the long campaign. Is this really how we want our President – and our other elected officials – spending their time? The 435 races for the House of Representatives cost over $1 billion, or an average of $2.3 million per seat. The races for the 33 Senate seats up for election cost over $700 million, or an average of $21 million each.

One third of the roughly $1 billion spent by groups other than the candidates’ campaigns themselves was secret funds anonymously funneled through front groups created to launder the money and hide its source. For the Super Political Action Committees (PACs), which could raise and spend unlimited sums because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the top 32 donors gave an average of $10 million each and just 159 people donated 60% of their funds.

The great bulk of the $7 billion spent on the federal races in 2012 came in large amounts from wealthy individuals and corporations. The voices of average citizens – the 99% of us – are drowned out in the campaigns and in policy making by the megaphones and mega-dollars of the wealthy.

So there is no question that we need comprehensive campaign finance reform if we want government of, by, and for the people. As Justice Brandeis stated, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

New York City has a system of citizen funding for campaigns for city offices. It provides matching public funds that give candidates the opportunity to run for public office without dependence on large contributions from wealthy donors. Someone running for citywide office or for city council who wants to participate in the voluntary citizen financing system has to raise a qualifying amount in small contributions. A mayoral candidate has to raise $250,000 from at least 1,000 city residents. A City Council candidate has to raise $5,000 in small donations from at least 75 in-district residents.

Once a candidate has achieved the qualifying threshold, any contribution up to $175 is matched six to one by public funds. So a $25 contribution is worth $175, a $100 contribution is worth $700, and a $175 contribution is worth $1,225. Only contributions by residents of the City or district are matched, and any amount over $175 is not matched. In addition to the qualifying thresholds and matching funds, there are per election spending limits ($161,000 for City Council and a little over $6 million for Mayor) and disclosure requirements. [2]

Participants in these city races are getting the majority of their funding from a broad spectrum of small contributors, while candidates for the state legislature from the same area, without the citizen funding system, get the majority of their funding from large contributors. This citizen funding allows candidates to focus their attention on ordinary citizens, not those with deep pockets, and still raise an amount of money that’s sufficient to run a credible, competitive campaign. And it engages citizens, because somebody who contributes $10 to a campaign, is more likely to volunteer, is more likely to show up and vote, and is more likely to follow and engage with what happens in government after the campaign than someone who doesn’t contribute – because they don’t believe their small contribution matters.

This blunts the influence of the big money in multiple ways. Beyond the base amount needed to run a credible campaign, additional money has a diminishing marginal return (to use a term from economics). In other words, after a point, additional campaign spending just doesn’t have that much impact. That’s one of the reasons all the Super PAC money wasn’t as effective as many thought it would be in the 2012 elections – people just got tired of hearing the same message over and over.

But money does matter. In 2012, more than 80 percent of House candidates and two-thirds of Senate candidates who outspent their general election opponents won. And although money doesn’t often literally buy elected officials’ votes, it does corrupt some of them and it certainly gets their ears and may well get them to lean toward the interests of their contributors.

At least 10 states and 7 cities have citizen / public campaign financing for at least some elections. A serious effort to implement broad citizen / public financing of elections is underway in New York for state elections. You can find information on campaign financing and whether there is a reform effort in your state at the Public Campaign website (http://www.publicampaign.org/).

Citizen / public campaign financing is an essential step in making our elected officials accountable and responsive to the 99% of us, as opposed to wealthy campaign contributors. It was important before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited spending by wealthy interests, and it’s even more important now.


[1]       The majority of the content for this blog post is a summary of Bill Moyers’ show of 2/15/13, “The fight to keep democracy alive.” You can watch it at http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-the-fight-to-keep-democracy-alive/. A podcast is also available. As I probably don’t need to tell you, Bill’s shows are fantastic and I urge you to watch or listen to them regularly if possible, or whenever you can find the time.

[2]       Migally, A., & Liss, S., 2010, “Small donor matching funds: The NYC election experience,” Brennan Center for Justice, http://www.brennancenter.org/issues/public-financing

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