Incomes/Outcomes: Campaign Finance as a Civil Rights Issue

By Sharon Basco

Vol. 20, No. 3, 1998 pp. 13-15

Throughout United States history, the right to vote has been defined, expanded, contracted, and refined. Textbooks call voting "the most elemental form of democratic participation." So why, then, at the close of a century that has seen hard-fought, persistent campaigns to win and ensure the right to vote, do so few people choose to participate? One hundred years ago, 80 percent of registered voters went to the polls; today,only one-third vote in Congressional elections, and fewer than half in Presidential races.

Why the apathy? Here are the two most common answers: (1)My vote doesn't matter; (2) The candidates are pretty much all the same.

Let's examine those two simple notions. On the "vote doesn't matter" ledger, we can consult one of America's most famous non-voters, Roger Tamraz. He's the multimillionaire businessman who startled U.S. Senators last fall by sharing with them his experience that money buys access in politics, and big money buys big access.

Tamraz's September, 1997, testimony came as a rare, amusing break from the mind-numbing proceedings before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. "If you do a favor for a politician, he won't forget you," Tamraz explained as his motive in writing $300,000 in checks to Democrats last year. "This is politics as usual." Non-partisan with his monetary attentions, Tamraz had earned "Republican Eagle" status in the '80s for his contributions to Ronald Reagan's campaigns.

Tamraz testified that his generosity paid off handsomely when he was able to bend President Clinton's ear about his scheme for a $2-billion Caspian Sea oil monopoly. "So do you think you got your money's worth?" Senator Joseph Lieberman [D-Conn] asked. "I think next time I'll give $600,000," Tamraz answered.

Senators expressed shock when Tamraz told them he'd never registered to vote. "I think [money] is a bit more than a vote," Tamraz told the Senators. "The New York Times" reported that moment succinctly: "In the great scheme of democracy, Mr. Tamraz testified, he considered his checkbook far more potent than his unused ballot franchise."

American voters seem to believe that their elected representatives are unprincipled enough to rate contributors' money higher than ordinary citizens' votes: a poll showed that just 14 percent of the people give members of Congress a high rating for honesty and ethical standards.

"Under the present campaign finance system we have lost that very important link between the office holder and the voter," according to Sara Clark, president of the League of Women Voters in Georgia, adding that the public well knows that. "The primary factor for being a successful candidate is money. In a recent survey done by the national League of Women Voters, the number one reason for low voter turnout is not apathy, but a feeling by voters that their vote simply is not connected to the decisions made by the elected official."

To a large extent, the viability of candidates for office is measured by the size of his or her war-chest. Voters can see that the best-funded candidate wins office, the well-funded incumbent stays there, and much of an officeholder's time and energy is devoted to fund-raising. Politicians publicly bemoan this money-sick system: on the subject of campaign finance reform, the past decade has seen the U.S. Congress produce 6,742 pages of hearings, 3,361 speeches, 1,063 pages of committee reports, 113 Senate votes and one bipartisan commission.

Do American voters believe all this scrutiny and discussion add up to a genuine commitment for reform by the 105th Congress? "In one survey . . . nearly half the people polled said they were more likely to see Elvis Presley alive than reform legislation passed by Congress," reported pollster Celinda Lake in the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call this past March.

And that takes us from (1) my vote doesn't count, to (2) the candidates are pretty much all the same. Why do major party candidates seem interchangeable, representing safe and predictable political positions? In part, it's because they've been pre-selected through the "wealth primary," a system that was identified and named by an American University constitutional law professor, Jamin Raskin, and John Bonifaz, executive director of The National Voting Rights Institute. Simply put, the "wealth primary" is the process by which wealthy people and corporations control who participates in-and who almost always wins-elections.

"Thank God we're a capitalist society and there's nothing wrong with running after money," Roger Tamraz told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. But what deity should non-multimillionaires petition to seek equality in a money-driven system?


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The "wealth primary" deprives the non-wealthy from meaningful participation in elections. It's an exclusionary process, leading up to every party primary and general election, in which those with money or access to money (by means of their campaign contributions) choose the candidates who almost invariably go on to govern. Prospective candidates who don't raise enough money - and who thus lose the wealth primary-almost always fail to win office.

This theory is at the heart of litigation in several states aimed at eradicating the primary barrier in our political process and restoring one person, one vote democracy. In Georgia, a lawsuit brought by a coalition of grassroots organizations led by the NAACP and represented by the National Voting Rights Institute contends that wealth plays such great a role in deciding who gets elected that it violates the Equal Protection and First Amendment rights of lower-income voters and candidates. Known as Georgia State Conference of NAACP Branches v. Massey, the lawsuit seeks a federal judge's order mandating the creation of publicly financed campaigns for state office.

Explaining the organization's role in this case, the NAACP's Georgia president, Walter Butler said: "Thirty years ago, we won the fight to bring down the poll tax. The campaign finance system in Georgia today is the newest voting rights barrier, preventing ordinary citizens from equal participation in the election process."

Like the unlawful white primaries of the past, today's wealth primary prevents participation of the 99.75 percent of people who don't contribute more than $200 to campaigns. The system violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection for all in the political process and undermines the constitutional right to an equal and meaningful vote.

One plaintiff in the Massey lawsuit is John White, a seventeen-year veteran of the Georgia House, who in the 1996 state senate elections, was outspent by his opponent seventeen times over (White's campaign budget: $16,000; his opponent's: $270,000). White lost, and he believes lack of money was the reason.

"It used to be, you couldn't vote if you couldn't pay the poll tax," John White said. "Now you can't be a senator if you can't raise $200,000." White's contentions were bolstered by the results of a study which found that is money a determining factor in winning Georgia state senate elections. Analyzing all contestants for senate seats in the Georgia state senate from 1992 through 1996, the report, sponsored by a coalition of Georgia grassroots organizations, concludes that money was one of the strongest indicators of success, with the higher-spending candidate winning 83 percent of the time. The study found that incumbents who outspent their rivals in the last three election cycles prevailed 95 percent of the time.

"Unless the campaign finance laws are changed to make the field equitable, unless there are caps for spending, it will continue to be the wealthy who will have a voice and access to the people, and consequently, the power," said James Gibson, who canvassed rural Calhoun County in John White's campaign. "In the '96 election I saw the tremendous disadvantage that John White had, not having the money to reach the people the way his opponent did, with television advertisements. I knew White could better represent the peoples' interests, but he couldn't get to them the way his wealthy opponent could. He could not reach the people."

Nelson Rivers, director of the Southern regional office of the NAACP, describes the NAACP's investment in changing the campaign finance system: "It's a natural extension of our historic battle against injustice and exclusion at the ballot box. Money has become a barrier to equal access and participation in the process, and if it is not addressed it will continue to mean diminished democratic opportunity for African Americans and other people of color. And despite what appears to be just the opposite thinking, America still has not declared that political participation is only for those who have money. It doesn't say that in the Constitution."

Addressing the relevance of lawsuits like Massey to the African-American community, Rivers said: "We're impacted negatively in a disproportionate way. Since African Americans have decidedly less income, less disposable money than other people in the country, we're at a disadvantage when money is the deciding factor in whether you can participate.

"Sometimes the whole issue of money is nothing but a subterfuge to get to other things," Rivers continued. "The messages that are there on the airwaves and in campaign propaganda, those messages cost money, and a lot of those messages are negative and foster negative stereotypes. A lot of code words are used. Some of the same strategies that were used by whoever would say the n-word the loudest now is more sophisticated and cleaned up, but the outcome is still the same. So we have to fight that battle to make sure that your income does not predict or control your outcome as a candidate."

James Gibson sees Georgia's lawsuit as the beginning of a larger struggle. "All of us have the opportunity to affect change, to make a difference. It doesn't matter whether it's on the local, state or national level. As American citizens we have the opportunity, responsibility, and the right to go out there and do whatever we can to make things better for this generation and the next generation. What happened twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago will not be able to occur again. It's about making America the best for everybody."


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From the NAACP's perspective, says Rivers: "This case is about the future. It means that young people will have the chance to participate in the process of deciding who will make decisions that affect their lives. Because the people who control the politics control the policies that affect young folk-everything from whether there will be a college education available to them, whether there will be a chance to get a job, to go into business. Income ought not to determine the outcome politically. And right now that's what happens in America. There's a lot of pious platitudes about 'anyone can participate.' But over and over again we see that money is the big factor. And what that leaves us with is the Will Rogers comment about 'the best Congress money can buy.' Well in Georgia we've got the best legislature that money can buy, and that's not the best legislature for serving the people. This is a long-term project. But our struggle for justice is long-term."

Like his fellow Georgia plaintiffs, James Gibson is determined that the Massey case will help change the system. He's the persevering type: Gibson stays active in politics, even though he's been confined to a wheelchair since a farm accident in 1962. He has always lived in the rural community of Edison (population: 1,150), but there's nothing provincial about his world view: "This case is important to young people all over the country, because if they don't get involved, then the funding by Congress, by state legislatures, by city and county governments, that money won't be there to provide for their education, for health care, or for roads, food stamps-the whole nine yards. It's all connected to who makes those decisions in Congress and in state legislatures. We have to address these issues, because they will affect every single aspect of our lives from the time we're born to the time we die, really and truly."

Sharon Basco is communications director at the National Voting Rights Institute, and can be reached at: 294 Washington Street, Suite 713, Boston, MA 02108; Phone (617)368-9100;Fax(617)368-9101;Email: nvri@world.std.com.