Wealthy Campaign Donors Stifle Minority Voices
Published on Thursday, December 11, 2003 by USA TODAY
Wealthy Campaign Donors Stifle Minority Voices
by Antonio Gonzalez and Stephanie Moore

Campaign-finance-reform efforts to curtail the influence of big-money donors got a big boost Wednesday when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law curbing so-called soft-money contributions to political parties.

This ruling comes prior to next month's 40th anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution's 24th Amendment, which prohibits the use of poll taxes in federal elections. In the bad old days, citizens had to fork over cash to exercise their right to vote. As a result, African-Americans and Latinos were effectively disenfranchised.

Despite Wednesday's high-court ruling, Americans still should be decrying what amounts to a new poll tax: the current system of privately financed election campaigns. Because the system implicitly relies on an elite group of wealthy, white donors to fund most campaigns, it discriminates against people of color and other underserved communities that don't cough up as much money.

Money counts more than votes when electing our representatives in Washington and state offices. The candidate who raises the most cash wins more often than not, according to the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics. This cash is all "hard money," untouched by the court ruling. Voters already are starting to see this play out in the 2004 presidential elections. Since cash is the currency of elections, candidates troll for money where it is concentrated: in largely white, wealthy neighborhoods.

Today, we are issuing a study along with the reform organization, Public Campaign, called "The Color of Money." The report compares federal campaign finance figures with U.S. Census data on race and ethnicity, and maps the results by ZIP code.

The study found that in the past two election cycles, nine out of 10 donations over $200 to federal campaigns came from individuals in majority non-Hispanic white ZIP codes. It also showed $1 one out of $2 in campaign donations came from people living in a wealthy neighborhood. Yet nearly one out of three Americans are minorities. When a small, wealthy group, in effect, decides which candidates will have enough money to run a viable campaign, it is no great surprise that the agenda of policymakers is skewed toward its interests and not those of people of color and other underserved communities.

In recent weeks, for example, Congress has focused on a proposed energy bill that would award more than $20 billion in tax breaks to the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries. That would be a tidy payback for more than $71.8 million in campaign contributions since 1999. Also this week, President Bush signed a Medicare bill that will give the wealthy pharmaceutical industry an estimated $139 billion in increased profits by preventing the government from negotiating lower prices.

Meanwhile, the wealthy benefit most from tax breaks championed by the president and approved by Congress in recent years. But college-educated black and Hispanic men earn on average 30% less than white men do for comparable work, according to Census figures.

This country always has offered an answer for the underserved: Get involved. Vote. Make your voice heard. But voices would be amplified with real campaign finance reform, which would include: 1) Full public financing that would reduce the importance of private donations. 2) Candidates who agree to spending limits, to raise a large number of small contributions from in-district voters and to accept equal public grants to run their campaigns.

True reform would help the nation realize the sacred value of "one person, one vote," in the spirit of the 24th Amendment. It also would ensure that people's votes, not pocketbooks, determined representation in Washington.

Antonio Gonzalez is president of the William C. Velasquez Institute. Stephanie Moore is executive director of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project.

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