Facing what is predicted to be the most expensive presidential contest in history, leading advocates for election reform in the U.S. are calling on 2016 White House hopefuls to endorse a "21st Century Democracy Agenda," aimed at curbing the influence of money in politics while amplifying the voices of everyday Americans in the democratic process.
That process, according to the 12 national watchdog organizations who crafted the comprehensive policy platform, has been put at risk by policies and court decisions like Citizens United that empower corporate and special interests at the expense of regular voters.
The Fighting Big Money, Empowering People (pdf) agenda, released Thursday by advocacy groups including Common Cause, People for the American Way, U.S. PIRG, and Public Citizen, is based on five core principles of democracy:
"Americans are hungry, indeed starving, for candidates who will take action to ensure that government works for every citizen, not just those who are able to write big checks to candidates, parties, and political action groups."
—Miles Rapoport, Common Cause
- Everyone participates
- Everyone's voice is heard
- Everyone knows who is trying to influence our views and our representatives
- Everyone plays by fair, commonsense rules
- Everyone is held accountable, with enforceable penalties to deter bad behavior
The document beseeches candidates to support measures that help "bring these democratic values to life," including:
- Encouraging and amplifying the voices of everyday Americans through legislation to match small contributions with public funds for candidates who turn down big money, and tax credits for small contributions to encourage more Americans to participate.
- Robust, real-time disclosure of political contributions and expenditures through legislation and executive action, including an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose political spending, should President Obama fail to act.
- Overturning Citizens United and related cases through the Democracy for All constitutional amendment.
- Ending the mockery of existing campaign finance rules through legislation preventing coordination between candidates and outside groups that can receive unlimited contributions from big donors, and robust enforcement of current laws.
"The next President of the United States should commit to make this democracy reform agenda a national priority from Day One in office," the groups insist.
A copy of the agenda was sent to every declared presidential candidate, urging them to sign on to all or parts of the document. The groups behind the push say they will be requesting meetings with every campaign, and are vowing to "bird-dog" candidates on these issues in the early battleground states of New Hampshire and Iowa.
"Presidential candidates on both sides have been talking a big game about money’s influence in politics, but without a concrete plan of action, voters will just tune them out," said David Donnelly, president and CEO of Every Voice, a national non-profit working to improve campaign finance laws. "This set of principles offers popular commonsense policies that, if enacted, would go a long way toward raising the voices of everyday people in the political process and restoring trust in our democratic institutions."
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What's more, the American public is eager for such reforms to be put in place. A recent survey for the New York Times concluded that a full 81 percent of Republicans—and slightly more Democrats—favor an overhaul of the way political campaigns are financed. Another poll, for the Wall Street Journal, found that the political influence of the wealthy is among voters' top concerns for 2016.
"With the 2016 money primary in full swing as candidates from both parties court the donors with the deepest pockets, Americans of all political stripes are ready for reform—now more than ever," said Dan Smith, U.S. PIRG's Democracy Campaign director and a contributor to the policy agenda.
On Wednesday, a survey from Monmouth University showed that just one in 10 Americans feels that the post-Citizens United campaign fundraising climate has improved the presidential election process. Recent financial disclosures from presidential candidates support the prediction that the 2016 election will smash existing fundraising and campaign spending records—to the tune of potentially $5 billion.
"Americans are hungry, indeed starving, for candidates who will take action to ensure that government works for every citizen, not just those who are able to write big checks to candidates, parties, and political action groups," added Common Cause president Miles Rapoport.
"We want to see candidates do more than embrace the principles," Rapoport continued. "They should commit to specific reforms on a specific timetable... We're convinced that the dominance of big money is a danger to democracy; we want to see hard evidence that the candidates understand that and are committed to changing it."
Every Voice is keeping track of what the 2016 presidential candidates say about money in politics here.