Reading the campaign fundraising statistics from the 2012 presidential election can be intimidating. Combined, the presidential candidates raised and spent 2 billion dollars. More than a quarter of all of the money raised for the 2012 elections came from a fraction of one-percent of the population. There was more than $500 million in dark money — donations with no donor disclosure — campaign spending in October 2012 alone. These facts are as scary as they sound and demonstrate the dire situation that is campaign finance in America.
Many people assume that the U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United is the cause of this spending. While that decision did help to open these floodgates even wider, the problem of money in politics predates that decision and needs to be addressed beyond just overturning it. In this article, I’ll tell you about some solutions there are beyond just fighting Citizens United. These are not quick fixes, but they are important, interesting and worth knowing and caring about.
Before we look at solutions to this current situation we need to understand why this is a problem. Members of Congress spend anywhere from one-fifth to more than half of their time fundraising, reaching out to everyone who might possibly donate to their reelection — usually industry representatives, individuals and PACs. This is terrible for our democratic process because it means that these politicians have to cater to the wishes of donors and corporations, not just their constituents. It’s not in the rational self-interest of members of Congress to slave away at passing legislation unless they can fundraise off of it. This also means that those people with money will always have access to members of Congress. These are not the priorities we want our representatives to have, and yet we’ve put them in a situation that requires them to get reelected if they want to accomplish anything.
Our current political system is one in which money drives politics. Still, there are efforts to find solutions to this bleak situation.
One solution to this problem could be to make small donors more appealing to candidates than the large mega-donors that dominate political contributions. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University has published a policy proposal that suggests small donations be multiplied through public funding. This tactic has been used successfully in New York City races and it means that soliciting $50 donations from a local civic group could be a more valuable to a candidate than flying to some distant city to meet with billionaires. This solutions stays within the boundaries of Citizens United and other Supreme Court decisions and is a good first step in encouraging candidates to raise money from more individuals rather than a few ultra-wealthy donors.
Another way to combat large corporate donations is to convince corporate shareholders that getting involved in politics is not in their own self-interest. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group has joined with shareholders in big corporations to pressure their boards of directors not to engage in political donations. From Target, to Chik-fil-A, to Starbucks, many corporations have gotten into hot water after engaging in politics. We should encourage corporate shareholders to heed the lessons from those other corporations and avoid engaging in political donations. This would protect both the company’s image and the American democratic system. On the legislative side, 35 members of the House of Representatives have cosponsored a bill called the Shareholder Protection Act of 2013, a bill that would make sure corporations have the specific approval of their shareholders before engaging in political activity.
The best solution to the problems of campaign finance reform would be publicly financed elections. Several states and municipalities have enacted this policy and in other countries this is normal. Public funding of elections could work in a variety of ways but it generally means that a candidate who qualifies for the election, perhaps through signatures or a number of small donations from constituent voters, would have a set amount of money provided by the state with which to campaign. Another form has the state match donations the candidate receives from individuals. This would level the playing field and prevent the “buying” of elections by moneyed interests. 14 states have some public financing for elections and it is particularly common in elections of judges (doesn’t it make sense that our judges shouldn’t rely on rich donors?). The Supreme Court has struck down some public funding solutions but I think this is the best avenue for campaign finance reform.
I’m happy when people tell me they are motivated to fight Citizens United, but overturning that will take a change in either the Constitution or the Supreme Court. Focusing on just that one case ignores both the larger problem of campaign finance reform and the alternatives that can improve the situation more quickly. Whether it’s multiplying small donations, convincing corporations to limit their own political actions, public financing of elections or another public policy solution, there are options in this fight. But, the only way any of these changes happen is if voters like you care about it.
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