Who Pays for Election Campaigns?
By Randy Kehler
Vol. 20, No. 3, 1998 pp. 10-12
Anyone who stops to think about how we Americans finance election campaigns knows that this process makes a mockery of our democratic ideals and betrays the principles of political equality and “one person, one vote.” It’s a matter of common sense that in politics as in everything else, those who “pay the piper” will always “call the tune.” And it will remain that way until we make that process fair, representative, and accountable.
So, who does pay for the process of campaigning for public office? According to a recent survey supported by the Joyce Foundation, most of the money that funds federal elections comes from those who make contributions of at least $200. That group of donors accounts for less than one-quarter of one percent of the population. This tiny elite is incredibly unrepresentative of average Americans: 95 percent are white and fewer than one percent identify themselves as persons of color (even though people of color comprise nearly a quarter of the U.S. population). Eighty percent of these big donors are men, and nearly half are over the age of sixty. Eighty-one percent have annual incomes over $100,000 (as compared to under five percent for the general population), and 20 percent of them have incomes over $500,000 (as compared to 0.29 percent for the general population).
This “contributor class” is not just unrepresentative in their backgrounds; they are equally unrepresentative in their outlooks. The same study found that more than half support cutting taxes even if that means reducing public services. By a two-to-one margin, the contributor class opposes cutting defense spending and supports free trade “even if jobs are lost.” And a plurality reject national health insurance and disagree with spending more to reduce poverty. Each one of these positions is at odds with those of the general public. With most incumbent politicians preoccupied with raising money for their re-election campaigns and willing to do the bidding of their financial backers, is it any wonder that we have a government that is more concerned about profits for weapons manufacturers and capital gains for the wealthy than about public services, jobs, and health care for everyone else?
What discourages most of us even more than the rank inequality and unfairness of the political process and its dire consequences in the policy-making arena, is the apparent hopelessness of seriously overhauling that process. Those who bother to pay attention to the campaign finance
debate in Washington, D.C., know that even the most minimal reforms routinely go down to defeat, year after year. Unfortunately, we’re locked into a kind of “Catch-22.” With no bold, comprehensive reform proposals on the table, the public isn’t inspired to weigh in. Yet the absence of a mobilized public demanding real reform limits the “politically viable” reform options to the kinds of piecemeal changes that, even if passed, wouldn’t make much of a dent anyway.
But hold on. There’s something happening beyond the Washington Beltway. Far reaching reform proposal are on the table in a growing number of places around the country. This November the voters of Arizona, Massachusetts, and most likely New York City, will all have a chance to approve “Clean Money” campaign finance systems for state or city elections that could make the current corrupt and corrupting system a thing of the past. Under a Clean Money system, qualified candidates who are willing to reject private money and abide by spending limits receive equal, yet ample, amounts of public funding to cover all their campaign costs. And should they face a privately financed opponent who spends beyond the Clean Money amount or is helped by “independent expenditures,” they receive additional funds.
Such a system was passed by voters in Maine in November of 1996 and by the state legislature of Vermont in June of 1997 (laws which will go into effect in the year 2000 and after the 1998 general elections, respectively). And there are at least a dozen other states where Clean Money bills are headed for the ballot in 1999 or 2000, or where (in states without ballot initiative provisions) they are due to be introduced and fought for in state legislatures during the next session. Altogether there are more than thirty states where coalitions of groups-senior citizens, environmentalists, trade unions, good government groups- have started organizing around the Clean Money concept. Coordinating and providing resources to this growing state-based effort is a new national organization called Public Campaign whose longer-term goal is to translate this grassroots momentum into a focused national campaign capable of forcing Congress to enact a Clean Money system for federal elections.
Perhaps the most interesting is that more and more people are starting to define the elections problem not as a “campaign finance” issue, a designation that, for better or worse, tends to put people to sleep, but, as one church group in Kalamazoo, Michigan, recently put it, as a “justice issue.” William McNary, a much-respected African-American leader in Chicago, echoed that perspective when he says, “Clean Money campaign reform is about three things: freedom, morality, and power.”
Even more pointedly, veteran Montgomery, Alabama, civil rights activist Gwen Patton has said that what we are talking about is a voting rights issue. “Getting private money out of public elections,” Patton declared, “is the unfinished business of the Voting Rights Movement.” (See interview with Patton on page 16.)
The Supreme Court has made clear that the right to vote is not only the right to pull the lever but also the right to cast a meaningful vote. Indeed, this was codified by the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, which prohibit any system or arrangement that causes certain voters to have “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” The anti-democratic way in which we finance the campaigns of candidates for public office is a prime example of such a “system or arrangement.”
Accordingly, Clean Money citizens coalitions in states across the country-including many in the South (see box on page 22)-jointly designated the week of September 21-27, 1998, as a “national action week,” with the theme “Clean Money Is a Voting Rights Issue.” During that week, Public Campaign released research report entitled, “The Color of Money.” Taking advantage of innovative computer technology and data from the Census Bureau and the Federal Election Commission, the report examines zip code areas by race, income, and campaign contributions. Here’s an example of the findings: the aggregate amount of 1995-1996 federal campaign contributions from one wealthy zip code area in Atlanta was 30 percent greater than the amount that came from all eighteen of Atlanta’s zip code areas comprised of at least 50 percent people of color.
Ultimately, what is needed is not just the effective abolition of privately-financed elections, but real progress on a number of other political reform fronts as well. These include finding equitable alternatives to the current single-member, winner-take-all election districts; bringing down states’ ballot access restrictions for non-major party candidates; and removing the remaining barriers to voter registration (which, at a minimum, means making sure the “Motor Voter” law is fully and universally implemented).
Because all these and other changes go hand in
hand, those of us who pursue them must work hand in hand. Just as the Civil Rights Movement was composed of people working separately yet together on different aspects of the problem, from the segregation of public facilities to the denial of voting rights for African Americans, it is time to bring together under one over-arching banner today’s related issues of political reform. Call it the “Civil Rights Movement Continued,” or the “Political Rights Movement,” or the “Fair Representation Movement,” or the “New Democracy Movement”–it doesn’t matter.
The important thing to is expand our vision and enlarge our work, with the aim of bringing about a fundamental, nationwide re-examination and re-formation of what we mean by, and how we practice, democracy.
Randy Kehler, who lives in Massachusetts is a founding member of the Working Group on Electoral Democracy, and a consultant to Public Campaign. For more information about Clean Money Campaign Reform, call Public Campaign at 202-293-0222, or check out their web site www.publicampaign.org.