We are stuck in the political equivalent of the movie Groundhog Day. In the absence of constitutional reform that renews the authority of citizens and their elected leaders to enact meaningful campaign finance laws, America is destined to repeat from election cycle to election cycle the sordid process by which our politics and our governance are bartered off to the highest bidders in ever-more expensive auctions for the souls of elected leaders and both major parties.
The final spending totals for 2014 will not be known for months, and in this era of increasingly dark, dark-money campaigning, some of the details will never be adequately revealed or understood. But even the bare minimum figure established just prior to the election by the Center for Responsive Politics is acknowledged as a record. “Every election since 1998 has been more expensive than the one before it, and predictably the 2014 election will follow that path, CRP has projected—though the total projected cost of $3.67 billion is only a slight uptick over the price tag of the 2010 midterm,” the center noted. “Counting all forms of spending—by candidates, parties and outside groups—Team Red is projected to have spent $1.75 billion, while Team Blue’s spending is projected to ring in at $1.64 billion.”
The final figures will be much higher for several reasons. First, many types of spending are not revealed until weeks, sometimes months, after elections. Second, formal filings and investigative reports will over time reveal more details of supposedly “independent” and dark-money spending. Finally, and most significantly, details of spending on state and local contests will boost that $3.67 billion figure dramatically. The able researchers at CRP focus on federal races for the US Senate and the US House. Yet, some of the biggest spending of 2014 took place in competitve state races for governor, for attorney general and for control of key legislative chambers. Additionally, spending skyrocketed in state and local judicial races in 2014. And spending on initiatives and referendums was in the hundreds of millions.
Add all this additional largesse in and the 2014 spending figure will be well in excess of $5 billion.
This spending does not buy higher turnouts—2014 saw the lowest level of voter participation since 1942, when World War II created some complications.
The spending does not produce better debates on a wider range of issues—the 2014 campaign was broadly derided as “the election about nothing.”
And it does not result in better or more responsive governance—on the eve of the 2014 election, the approval rate for Congress fell to 8 percent.
That final factor is the most consequential. While much is made of the impact that election spending has on particular contests and on the broader struggle for control of the Congress, there is far too little consideration given to the reality stated by Congressman John Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat who says, “A lot of the moneyed impact. and in some ways, the most sinister is on the governing that happens after.”
Americans recognize this. An April 2014, national Reason-Rupe poll found that 75 percent of Americans believe all politicians are “corrupted” by campaign donations and lobbyists. Other surveys, asking the question in other ways, have found even higher levels of cynicism about arrangements between economic and political elites.
The American people also know that without the restoration of basic American ideals and standards with regard to elections—rooted in the premise that corporations are not people, money is not speech and votes must matter more than dollars—each new election cycle will be more expensive and more negative and much less likely to produce high turnouts and results that reflect the will of the great mass of citizens.
There is a sense of urgency, well expressed by US Senator Jon Tester, D-Montana, when he said just after the 2014 election: “If we don’t move quickly and forcefully to get big money out of our elections, it will give the wealthy a vice grip on our government. It will drown out the voices of regular folks. And it will embolden those with the deepest pockets to take further action to keep shaping the electorate how they see fit. We need action, and we need it now.”
Most importantly, Americans are acting on that knowledge. The hidden story of the 2014 election cycle was that, amidst all the shameless fundraising and spending, a popular revolt was brewing at the polls.
This was not about Democrats or Republicans.
This was not about liberals or conservatives.
This was about democracy.
In states across the country, voters signaled that they are ready to take the steps that are necessary to constrain the “money power” of billionaire campaign donors and corporate lobbies in order to restore honest debates, honest elections and honest governance.
Counties, cities, villages and towns in Florida, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin took up the question of whether the US Constitution should be amended to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which struck down century-old limits on corporate spending to buy elections.
The demand was clear and unequivocal. While the questions on ballots across the country varied modestly, they all paralleled the message of the ballot question that earned 70 percent support in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin: “Shall the United States Constitution be amended to establish the following? 1. Only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights, and 2. Money is not speech, and therefore, regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.”
Across Wisconsin, a dozen communities took up the question, and a dozen endorsed it with support running as high as 82 percent. Notably, in a number of communities that voted to elect Republicans (including free-spending Governor Scott Walker), support for an amendment was overwhelming.
The same was true in other states. In red regions, in blue regions, in urban cities and rural towns, Americans backed the calls for an amendment. There were almost three dozen votes November 4, in jurisdictions that are home to the better part of 2 million Americans, and the message was overwhelming. “Nearly all Americans share the sentiment that corporations should not have the same rights as people, and big money in politics should be removed,” declared Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, the national director of Move to Amend. “It is time for Congress to pass the We the People Amendment and send it to the states for ratification. The leadership of both parties need to realize that their voters are clamoring for this amendment, and we are only going to get louder."
The number of commuities that have made the call for an amendment now exceeds 600.
The number of states is at sixteen, and it will rise.
The crisis is real, and so is the movement to address it.
Just ask Katie Schierl. She helped organize the petition drives to put the issue in the cities of Neenah and Menasha, Wisconsin. In a region where Republicans won with relative ease, Neenah voted 79 percent for an amendment, while Menasha gave it 80 percent.
“We need the power of the people to change this situation,” said Katie Schierl, a leader of the petition drive in Neenah and Menasha. “That’s the only way it’s going to happen. This movement is growing all across America—it’s going viral.”