DEMOCRATIZING CAMPAIGN FINANCING

ABSTRACT: We need to change our system of financing political campaigns. Candidates need to be able to run viable campaigns based on the financial support of average voters, and without the support of the small number of wealthy donors who dominate current campaign funding. Many people who would make great elected representatives don’t even run for office because they don’t have access to the money needed to run a credible campaign.

We can make small contributions more valuable by matching them with public funds. The Government by the People Act (HR 20) has been introduced in the US House and would match contributions of up to $150 with $6 of public funds for every dollar of private funds. Campaign financing systems that match small contributions are already in place in states from Maine to Arizona and in New York City. They amplify the voice of small donors and blunt the influence of large donors. As a result, the number of people running and the competition for elected offices has increased. To encourage more voters to be contributors, a voucher or tax credit could be provided to each citizen to be used to support a candidate for federal office.

By democratizing campaign financing, we regain democracy by getting our elected representatives to represent us instead of big campaign donors. In previous posts, I mentioned the effort to raise $12 million to fund the Mayday PAC, which would support candidates for Congress who support campaign finance reform. I’m happy to report that the fundraising effort was successful and the Mayday PAC is now selecting the 5 or so races that it will target in 2014.

FULL POST: We need to change our system of financing political campaigns. Candidates need to be able to run viable campaigns based on the financial support of average voters. As long as the support of the small number of wealthy donors who contribute more than $200 (less than 1% of the population) is necessary, our elected representatives are likely to at least lean toward representing those donors’ views and interests, instead of the broader, public interest. Keep in mind that not only does the candidate with the most money usually win, but many people who would make great elected representatives don’t even run for office because they don’t have access to the money needed to run a credible campaign under the current campaign financing system.

One solution would be to remove all private money from public elections. Campaigns would be paid for with public money. Proposals to do this have been put forward and such legislation has been filed in Congress, but this approach is unlikely to garner much support and would almost certainly require a Constitutional amendment.

A more feasible strategy, supported by individuals on both the right and left, wouldn’t remove private money from public elections but would make small contributions much more valuable and make campaigns based on them much more possible.

We can make small contributions more valuable by matching them with public funds. The Government by the People Act (HR 20) has been introduced in the US House and would match contributions of up to $150 with $6 of public funds for every dollar of private funds. Therefore, a $50 contribution would provide the candidate with $350. To qualify for the matching funds, a candidate for Congress would have to raise $50,000 in contributions of $150 or less from at least 1,000 donors in his or her home state. The candidate could not accept contributions of more than $1,000, could not accept PAC money, and would be strictly limited in the use of his or her own money in the campaign. Including these contribution caps is essential to limit the role of wealthy interests and is a reasonable and legal trade-off for receiving public matching funds. A similar bill, the Fair Elections Now Act, has been introduced in the US Senate.

You can get lots more information and all the details of these bills here (http://ofby.us/) and sign on as a citizen co-sponsor here (http://ofby.us/citizen-cosponsor/). Contacting your Representative and Senators to let them know you support this legislation would be valuable as well.

Forty groups have already endorsed this legislation: good government groups such as Common Cause, public interest groups such as the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, labor unions such as the National Education Association and the Communications Workers of America, and civil rights groups such as the NAACP.

Campaign financing systems that match small contributions, as these bills in Congress would, are already in place in states from Maine to Arizona and in New York City. They amplify the voice of small donors and blunt the influence of large donors. They also allow average citizens to run competitive campaigns. As a result, the number of people running and the competition for elected offices has increased where these financing systems are in place. This results in greater representation of the common interest and reduced influence for special interests.

To increase the number of small contributions and to encourage more voters to be contributors, a voucher or tax credit could be provided to each citizen to be used to support a candidate for federal office. The voucher or tax credit, in effect, makes the contribution free for the voter. The Government by the People Act proposes a $25 tax credit. Amounts ranging from $25 to $200 have been proposed. Increased numbers of contributors results in a more engaged and committed public, as well as elected officials who are more responsive to the public good. [1]

Using matching funds, along with a voucher or tax credit, would give candidates a way to fund their campaigns through small contributions. As a result, candidates would have an incentive to work hard   from one election to the next to give the average voter (not just the wealthy ones) a reason to contribute to them. The increased number and value of small-dollar contributions can remove the influence of big money and big donors from campaigns. By democratizing campaign financing, we regain democracy by getting our elected representatives to represent us instead of big campaign donors.

We do need constitutional changes to control the spending outside of candidates’ campaigns. This will require reversing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions by making it clear that corporations do not have the same rights as human beings and that unlimited political spending is not the same as freedom of speech and can be regulated and limited in the interest of preserving democracy and preventing corruption. Resolutions calling for a Constitutional amendment have been introduced in both the House and Senate. In the Senate, a constitutional amendment allowing the regulation of money in politics has been approved in a committee and is headed to the floor for a vote of the full Senate.

The Constitutional amendment process is long and difficult. However, right now, we can make enormous progress on the financing of candidates’ campaigns in a much easier and quicker way   through changes in campaign finance laws. To create pressure for politicians to face up to this campaign financing crisis, we all need to communicate with our elected officials and also to support the election of candidates who will address this problem.

In previous posts, I mentioned the effort to raise $12 million to fund the Mayday PAC, which would support candidates for Congress who support campaign finance reform. I’m happy to report that the fundraising effort was successful and the Mayday PAC is now selecting the 5 or so races that it will target in 2014. [2] If you’d like to suggest a candidate it should support or oppose you can do so here: https://mayday.us/suggest-a-candidate/.

Reforms of our campaign finance system are critical to reclaiming democracy and moving back toward the fundamental principle of one person, one vote. In the current system, it’s dollars that matter; money determines who runs, who wins, and what policies are enacted. Right now, big donors – wealthy individuals and corporations – are drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens. We must fight back.

[1]       Overton, S., 11/13/12, “The participation interest,” The Georgetown Law Journal (http://georgetownlawjournal.org/articles/the-participation-interest/)

[2]       Lessig, L., 6//4/14, “What’s so bad about a Super PAC?” https://medium.com/law-of-the-land/whats-so-bad-about-a-superpac-c7cbcf617b58

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