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Can We Get the Money Out of Politics?

Many of the problems we have in the U.S. system, such as the Electoral College trumping (ahem) the popular vote, are institutional problems, and they are preserved by the high standards we set to amend the Constitution.

If we can’t easily regulate the amount of money in our politics, we might spread it around more (like Seattle), or create fewer opportunities to spend it (like Twitter) or less time in which to do so by limiting by law the length of campaigns, as Canada and many other nations do. (Photo: by Ethan Miller/Scott Olson/Olivier Douliery/Ira L. Black/Tsvi Braverman/Getty Images)

Lost amid the daily news cycle now focused on the impeachment of the president is the fact that money continues to roll in. Democratic candidates are constantly asking donors to help them meet the latest fundraising deadline, while Trump’s presidential rallies and meetings have long doubled as fundraisers.

It’s no surprise, then, that we’re now on our way to have the most expensive presidential election in history, breaking the record set in 2016, which broke the record set in 2012. … And there’s every reason to believe that the 2024 election will be an even deeper well into which candidates and political parties will be tossing an ever-growing stream of money.

It shouldn’t have to be this way, and many people of all political persuasions agree that money has corrupted our political system. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also known as McCain-Feingold, sought to drastically roll back corporate financing of elections, by banning unlimited “soft money” contributions to national political committees and preventing federal candidates from raising those kinds of unregulated contributions, among other restrictions.

After the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling overturned many of the provisions of McCain-Feingold, however, most efforts to get corporate and union money out of politics have been forestalled, and existing laws on the books have been weakened or overturned. Money in elections is political speech, the court ruled, and any laws curtailing big money spending are an infringement on speech, no matter how much damage this particular brand of “speech” is doing to our democracy.

Is there an extra-constitutional workaround? Some people are trying, but it may not be enough.

In the Democratic presidential primary race, both U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders have made eschewing donations from corporate political action committees a centerpiece of their campaigns.

That hasn’t hurt their fundraising. Quite the opposite: In the third quarter of 2019, Sanders raised $25.3 million, with an average donation of just $18.07. Warren raised $24.6 million in the quarter, an average of $26 per donor.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg raised $19.1 million, tapping into more traditional fundraising avenues, and former Vice President Joe Biden, also playing the donor-dinner circuit, only raised about $15.7 million in the third quarter, and there have been reports that Biden’s campaign is running low on money a full year before the 2020 election.

That comparison speaks to the power of individual donations, but it cuts both ways. President Trump brought in $41 million in the third quarter, and Open Secrets estimates that about 59% of all his funding arrived in the form of donations of $200 or less.

All these efforts seem more like trying to allow more people to take part in a political system corrupted by money, rather than fixing the corruption at the heart of it.

The catchall solution usually posed to the problem of big money in elections is public financing. That little checkbox on everyone’s income tax forms—allowing $3 per person to be redirected to the presidential campaign rather than the U.S. treasury’s general fund (without changing anyone’s tax or refund)—was put there in response to all the secret money flowing in and around President Richard Nixon’s reelection and the related Watergate scandal.

It seems like a good idea, but candidates who choose to take public money through this vehicle must also adhere to spending limits: in 2016, the limit was $48.07 million in the primary campaign and $84.1 million in the general election.

These days, those limits make relying on public funding not worth it. The total pool of money in the fund is determined by the number of people who voluntarily contribute to the election fund, which in 2016 raised just $28.4 million, or the equivalent of about 9.5 million individual taxpayers checking that box.

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But even maxed out, the spending limits pale compared to the unlimited spending allowed otherwise: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised $585.7 million during her 2016 run for president and spent nearly all of it. Donald Trump raised $350.7 million and spent $343.1 million. The last presidential candidate to take public money was U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2008, and he was vastly outspent by Barack Obama. (Trump’s reelection campaign this year is on track to far surpass Clinton’s 2016 campaign chest.)

Some cities are looking for a workaround. Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program sends each resident four $25 “checks” that can be donated to local campaigns. As a way of public financing, it assists candidates who are poorer or are forgoing big contributions from special interest groups. Some restrictions still apply (accepting no contributions larger than $250 and a total cap on $150,000 in spending unless their opponent surpasses them), but it’s not such a steep bar to clear as the federal presidential campaign fund, which requires candidates to raise money in 20 states before they qualify.

Candidates in all seven Seattle city council races used the voucher program in 2019, including six of the seven winners. Nearly $2.5 million in the vouchers went into the races, with several candidates maxing out their intake in either the primary or general election.

An analysis of the Democracy Voucher program in its first year found that more than 20,000 Seattle residents used the vouchers in the 2017 elections, most of whom had never contributed to a candidate before. However, those voters who took part in the program still tended to skew toward regular voters in local elections, older voters, and those who live in wealthier and majority-White neighborhoods.

Seattle’s Democracy Voucher model continues to generate interest, from U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposal for a national program to city-based systems across the country. Washington, D.C.,’s 2018 Fair Elections Act will get its first test in the 2020 municipal elections. A similar program on the ballot in Albuquerque, New Mexico, called Democracy Dollars, came just short of winning majority support. New York state is experimenting with a new small-donor public financing system that it hopes will boost the clout of donations as small as $10 with a state match, thereby also reducing the influence of large corporate donations. New guidelines are scheduled to be set this month.

But all these efforts seem more like trying to allow more people to take part in a political system corrupted by money, rather than fixing the corruption at the heart of it.

Many of the problems we have in the U.S. system, such as the Electoral College trumping the popular vote, are institutional problems, and they are preserved by the high standards we set to amend the Constitution.

Part of the reason is that elections are expensive, and part of the reason they’re this expensive is that they are long. President Trump effectively started running for reelection with his first “victory rally” on Dec. 1, 2016. (Meanwhile, in October, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won reelection after an exhausting 40-day campaign. How quaint.)

Campaign advertising is also a big business. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made waves in October when he announced in a speech at Georgetown University that his platform, notoriously exploited by a Russian-backed disinformation campaign in the 2016 election, would continue to run political advertising regardless of whether or not the ads were truthful.

Just a few weeks later, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took the opposite approach, using his own platform to announce that Twitter would accept no paid political advertising. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” he tweeted.

It’s a small start. If we can’t easily regulate the amount of money in our politics, we might spread it around more (like Seattle), or create fewer opportunities to spend it (like Twitter) or less time in which to do so by limiting by law the length of campaigns, as Canada and many other nations do.

Many of the problems we have in the U.S. system, such as the Electoral College trumping (ahem) the popular vote, are institutional problems, and they are preserved by the high standards we set to amend the Constitution. The reason that a senator from a state with a population of just under 600,000 (Wyoming) has the same clout as one representing nearly 40 million people (California), or why a system designed to allow a thorough debate on a bill (the filibuster) has become a bureaucratic tool to kill legislation, stems from the rigidity of a system that’s persisted in roughly the same form for 230 years.  

If we can’t change it outright, maybe a workaround is the best option going forward. Just as the National Popular Vote movement is an attempt to sidestep the Electoral College to ensure the president is elected by the people rather than the states, there are examples and steps we can follow to help get the money out of politics. Seattle, Albuquerque, New York state and other municipalities are living up to the old adage of the states—and more often cities—being the “laboratories of democracy.” We can only hope that if those local labs cook up a successful treatment for the sickness in our system, all Americans will begin demanding it for themselves.

Chris Winters

Chris Winters

Chris Winters is Senior Editor at YES! Magazine

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