On Tuesday the New York Times and CBS News released one of the most in-depth surveys in recent history on Americans’ views about money in elections. The results weren’t hard to interpret: across the board, Americans agree that money holds far too much sway and that sweeping changes are needed in our political system. A full 85 percent of respondents said our current system is so flawed that it needs to either see fundamental changes or be rebuilt completely.
Although advocates working to get big money out of politics already knew this was an issue Americans care deeply about, the extent and strength of support for fundamental change revealed in the poll is significant. Voters don’t want small tweaks to an otherwise functioning system. The message coming through is a far-reaching call for reform: the system is broken.
Notably, support for change was strong among those from all political backgrounds, underscoring the fact that Washington is the only place where campaign finance reform is a partisan issue. Support for restricting campaign donations among Republicans polled was almost as strong as support among Democrats polled. National party leaders who want to roll back what’s left of our nation’s campaign finance laws (we’re looking at you, Sen. McConnell) would do well to take note that Republican voters are not on the same page as Republican leadership on this.
How did we get to a place where most Americans think the system is broken? Much of it is thanks to the conservative majority of the Supreme Court, which has been steadily knocking down the rules remaining about money in politics. From finding in Citizens United v. FEC (2010)that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited funds to influence elections to deciding in McCutcheon v. FEC (2014) that limits on the overall amount a wealthy donor can give to candidates, parties, and PACs are unconstitutional, this court has continually jumped at opportunities to weaken our democracy. As my colleague Paul Gordon noted this week, in these decisions the high court has also been chipping away at the acceptable rationale for laws limiting money in elections: “They acknowledge that laws can be passed to prevent corruption and its appearance, but they have reduced that concept to little more than outright bribery.” So even as the Koch brothers and other billionaires buy political influence in a way that ordinary Americans could never dream of, in the view of the current Supreme Court, this is just democracy in action rather than a reason for concern.
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Given this trend, it’s discouraging but not surprising that the poll found deep cynicism among Americans about the potential for fixing our big money system. Nearly six in ten people said they were pessimistic that reform would happen.
Though it might not always make national headlines, at the local and state level change is already happening. From providing incentives to encourage small donor participation in our elections, to disclosing political spending, to pushing for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United, there are real solutions we can rally behind that are already taking root in communities across the country. In 2014 in Connecticut, for example, 84 percent of incoming state officials were elected using the state’s clean elections program. Thanks to this program, which offers grants to candidates who raise a certain number of small donations, candidates across the state are relying less on the wealthiest residents to propel them into office and more on the support of everyday people. A number of states across the country also passed new laws last year requiring increased disclosure of political spending. And on-the-ground organizing has pushed 16 states and more than 650 towns to call for a constitutional amendment that would allow lawmakers to set reasonable limits on money in elections.
Despite concerns about the possibility for reform, it’s clear that the national political will for getting big money out of politics is there. And across the country, local leaders are already organizing to make it happen.