Second Rate Democracy

Seventeen Ways America is Less Democratic than other Major Western Countries and How We Can Do Better

A web project of Douglas J. Amy, Professor Emeritus of Politics, Mount Holyoke College

Seventeen Ways America is Less Democratic than other Major Western Countries and How We Can Do Better

A web project of Douglas J. Amy, Professor Emeritus of Politics, Mount Holyoke College

The Seventeen Issues: Elections > 7. Private Money in Campaigns

Campaign Finance: How Wealth Corrupts Elections

If there is a cancer eating away at American democracy, it is money – the way money buys power for wealthy special interests and frustrates the public will.  There is no better example of this than in our system of campaign finance.  In the U.S., financing election campaigns relies almost entirely on private money.  Undoubtedly there are some Americans who still believe that this is just the way it works in a democracy.  But it is not. Other major democracies find it absurd to allow corporations and wealthy individuals to dominate the funding of campaigns to elect their most important officials and they have found a variety of ways to prevent it, including public financing, free media, and spending limits.  The U.S. is unique is its reliance on private money in campaigns and unique in the way this corrupts our elections and undermines our democracy.

Obvious Problem #1:  An Uneven Playing Field

Elections are at the heart of any democracy.  They are what allow citizens to control their government and to hold their representatives accountable.  But for elections to be fully democratic, several conditions must hold.  First, citizens must have an equal amount of power to decide who is elected.  We would be outraged, for instance, if some citizens had five votes and others only one.   Second, democratic elections must also be fair races. Candidates should have an equal opportunity to be nominated and get elected, and no candidates should have unfair advantages over others.  Elections should be on an even playing field.

Unfortunately, our American elections fail to fulfill both of these criteria – in large part because of problems in the way they are financed.  The large and pivotal role that private money plays in elections means that some people have a lot more power to determine who wins than others, and that some candidates have unfair advantages over their opponents.

Donations are important here because elections are much more expensive than they are in other major democracies.  The average cost of winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives is now $1.6 million, and winning candidates for the Senate spend on average almost $10.6 million.  Candidates who have larger war chests have many advantages.  They can afford to advertise much more and make themselves more appealing to the public. They can also buy the best campaign staff – strategists, pollsters, media advisors, speech writers, etc. – that have become so crucial in winning campaigns.  Funds also enable candidates to have a larger on-line presence, to open more offices, do more polls, and travel more.  And ironically, the more money a campaign has, the more it can spend on fundraising activities.  The rich get richer.

This is not to say that the candidate with the most money always wins.  But more money does give candidates a significant edge.  If elections were like 100-yard dashes, the candidates with the most money would start at the 75-yard line.  If they are particularly slow, they still might lose; but generally they have the best chance to win. The Center for Responsive Politics found that the highest spending candidate wins in 90% of the House races and 80% of the Senate contests.

Obvious Problem #2:  Exchanging Money for Votes

The easiest way for donors to get the policies they want is to simply help elect candidates who already share their ideology and the policy perspectives.  But often donors give money to candidates of the opposite party – especially if they are incumbents – in the hope that their donations will help sway the politicians towards their concerns.  The question of whether donations influence floor votes on bills used to be hotly debated by political scientists.  But as Clayton Peoples has noted, the most recent and largest studies have found compelling evidence for a causal connection between campaign donations and the way some politicians vote on bills.  And not surprisingly, contributors’ influence over votes tends to increase on “low visibility” bills—where constituents are less likely to know about the bill or how their representative voted on it.

Legislators often feel a subtle but strong obligation to give something back to the special interests who give them large campaign “gifts.”

Every so often, the trading of contributions for votes on bills is done explicitly.  A contributor may warn a member of Congress that if he or she does not vote for a particular bill, no more contributions will be made.  But this kind of heavy-handed quid pro quo is not common and can cause resentment. More often, the process is subtler – but still effective.  Sociologists like Dan Clawson and Clayton Peoples have found that campaign contributions function less as bribes and more as “gifts” that strengthen social networks and create obligations. Sociologists have long known that “once given something (e.g. a gift), a person will feel compelled to give something back. Indeed the obligation to give back when given something appears to be a nearly universal human phenomenon.”  And so it is with legislators, who feel a subtle, but strong obligation to give something back to the special interests who give them large campaign “gifts.”

So in the end, campaign contributions corrupt democracy in two different ways.  Election races themselves are corrupted by large contributions giving unfair advantages to candidates representing wealthy interests.  And the legislative process is corrupted by donations creating a strong sense of obligation among politicians that they must return the favor to contributors by supporting their policy interests.  In both cases, the way things are supposed to work in democracies – voters determining who is elected and legislators responding primarily to their constituents – are severely undermined by the corrupting influence on private money.

Hidden Problem #1: The Wealth Primaries

Private funding of elections can have a number of disturbing political effects beyond the obvious ones mentioned above. Few American are aware, for instance, that the corrosive effect of private money begins to have an effect even before the elections take place.  Prospective candidates must take part in what some have called a “hidden primary” – the contest to see who can raise enough money to fund a viable campaign.  Research has shown that candidates who can raise a significant amount of money early in a campaign are more competitive than their rivals.  Typically this gives an advantage to candidates who are socially connected to wealthy people who can serve as early investors in their campaigns – thus disproportionately excluding candidates who are poor, people of color, and women.  Also, a task force of the American Political Science Association found that the effect of wealth primaries on federal office races is “to discourage certain kinds of challengers who, for instance, promote egalitarian policies that would redistribute resources from affluent campaign contributors.” So private money can play a large role in determining who is able run for office in the first place.

Hidden Problem # 2: Buying Access

The large role of private money in campaigns also undermines democracy after elections.  Wealthy contributors are not only trying to buy the election for their preferred candidates, they also use their donations to buy access to these legislators after they get into office.  Members of Congress don’t have time to see everyone who wants to lobby them.  And one effective way to get into see a member of Congress is to be a big contributor.  That is why big businesses may give some contributions to heavily favored Democratic incumbents – even if they would prefer to work with Republicans. As seen earlier, these donations can create a sense of obligation.  But they also give lobbyists a better chance of getting the ear of that legislator when they need to. One report found that people seeking meetings with a congressional office – and mentioned that they were donors – were four times more likely to get to see the Chief of Staff and twice as likely to get a meeting with the member of Congress.  Getting to lobby the chief of staff or member of Congress face-to-face is much more effective than simply sending along a report or a citizen petition.  So interests that make large campaign contributions tend to have a clear advantage in lobbying members of Congress.

Hidden Problem #3:  Distracted Legislators

Another serious problem that private money contributions create is that all this fundraising makes it much harder for members of Congress to spend the time needed to do their jobs.   A surprising amount of members’ days are spent trying to raise the massive funds they need to get re-elected.  In 2012, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was briefing new members of Congress, they presented them the following suggested 10-hour daily schedule: Call Time: 4 hours. Constituent Visits: 1-2 hours. Committee/Floor Work: 2 hours. Strategic Outreach: 1 hour. Recharge Time: 1 hour.

“Call time” is time spent on the phone talking to potential donors.  As one journalist observed: “After votes in the House, a stream of congressmen and women can be seen filing out of the Capitol and, rather than returning to their offices, heading to rowhouses nearby on First Street for call time, or directly to the parties’ headquarters. The rowhouses … are typically owned by lobbyists, fundraisers or members themselves, and are used for call time because it’s illegal to solicit campaign cash from the official congressional office.”

To make things worse, much of the “strategic outreach” includes breakfasts and meet-and-greets with potential donors.  Even many of the “constituent visits” involve donors.  To their credit, many members of Congress detest the obscene amounts of time they spend on begging for money.  Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) described the process this way: “What’s my experience with it? You might as well be putting bamboo shoots under my fingernails.”

But the real problem with all this time spent fundraising is not how much drudgery it creates for politicians, but the fact that it distracts them from their responsibilities as elected officials. It leaves precious little time to do their real jobs:  developing, considering, and passing laws to promote the public interest.  It’s the members of the public who are really hurt when politicians can’t concentrate on the demanding jobs they were elected to do.

Who is Buying Elections

So who benefits most politically from the dominance of private money in elections?  The short answer is obvious: those with the most money to give.  One such group is clearly corporations.  Consider, for instance, money given to Congressional candidates through traditional political action committees.  It is true that most interest groups do have PACs, but corporations clearly dominate in these contributions.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2018 congressional elections, environmental PACs contributed $6.6 million.  But consider the PAC donations of just five industries that often oppose environmental protection policies:  energy and natural resources, construction, agri-business, automobiles, and the chemical industry.  Together they donated $229 million – almost 35 times as much as the environmental groups.  Working people also came out on the short end of this money race.  Union PACs in 2018 were outspent by business PACs by a ratio of 6 to 1.

In donations by individuals, there is also a strong class/business bias.  According to the Pew Research Center, 32% of those from families making $150,000 or more made individual donations to campaigns, compared to just 7% of those making less than $30,000. In overall individual donations, those who gave over $200 (mostly business executives and professionals) dominated over small givers, donating over 70% of the total money coming from individuals. And yet they make up less than 1% of the population.

Unsurprisingly, then, the winners in the race to buy political influence through campaign donations are mostly corporations and the wealthy. The losers in this process are the voters. Members of Congress are supposed to work for their constituents.  But instead, they become beholden to those wealthy individuals and businesses who finance their election bids – and who often don’t even reside in the districts or states that elect these representatives.

Making Matters Worse: The Supreme Court

Unfortunately, the problem of private money corrupting elections is getting much worse, thanks in large part to decisions made by the Supreme Court.  People usually think of the 2010 Citizens United decision as being the main problem, but these misguided decisions go back much further.  The groundwork for Citizen United was laid in the Buckley v. Valeo decision made decades before.

In the early 1970s, following a number of scandals, the Democratic-led Congress actually passed several meaningful campaign finance reform bills.  These bills put limits on what individuals, candidates, parties, and political committees could donate. They also put total spending limits on congressional and presidential campaigns.  In Buckley v Valeo, the Supreme Court declared that campaign spending limits and limits on the spending of a candidate’s own money were unconstitutional.  Their reasoning: these limits violated the free speech rights of the candidates. This principle – that spending money on campaigns is speech – was to set the Court on a path of drastically worsening our campaign finance problems.

Other countries recognize that limiting campaign spending serves the important political goal of ensuring fair elections, free of the undue influence of private wealth.

It is worth noting how strange the Court’s ruling was in an international context. Many other democracies, who also have a robust commitment to free speech, allow just the kind of campaign spending limits that our Court struck down.  They do not agree with our Court’s assertion that free speech is the absolute value that trumps all other political values in campaign finance cases.  These other countries recognize that limiting campaign spending does limit some speech, but understand that this serves the more important political goal of ensuring fair elections, free of the undue influence of private wealth.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court has a history of recognizing that free speech must sometimes be limited to further more important political goals and values. For example, it has ruled that incitements to violence, child pornography, libel and slander, violations of copywrite, and misleading advertising are not protected by free speech rights.  And ironically, in 2015 the Court upheld limits on protesters’ First Amendment rights to gather and wave signs on the grand plaza in front of the Supreme Court, arguing that free speech had to take second place to the need to preserve the Court’s decorum.  In all these areas, the Court relied on the well-respected legal principle that civil liberties can sometimes be limited to further “substantial government interests.”  Why it doesn’t consider ensuring fair and democratic elections to be such a substantial interest is a puzzle.

The Flood of Outside Spending

Then in 2010 came the Court’s much criticized Citizens United ruling, in which it declared unconstitutional any restrictions on outside election ads paid for by corporations, unions, and non-profit organizations.  All based, of course, on the assumptions that campaign spending is speech and corporations are people and so deserving of free speech protections.  This decision opened the flood gates to a deluge of outside spending from wealthy interests and individuals.  So now these monied interests would not only dominate the contributions given to candidates’ campaigns, but would also have an unlimited ability to spend their own money in outside efforts to affect elections.

Citizens United and other court rulings allowed for the creation of several new organizational conduits for outside spending.  These new groups do not give money to candidates’ campaigns, but produce and air their own ads and must not coordinate their efforts with those of the candidates. (Wink, wink!) One of these new groups is called Super PACs.  They can raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations, unions, etc., and they can spend unlimited funds advocating for or against specific candidates.  Their donors must be disclosed.  The other major player is 501(c)(4) organizations (named after a section of tax code), which are non-profit groups that can also raise and spend unlimited money on outside ads.  Their main advantage over Super PACs is that they aren’t required to disclose their donors.

The mercurial growth of these two outside groups has been disturbing for three reasons. First is their tactics.  Most specialize in nasty attack ads.  We’ve all seen them.  They often are in black and white and feature ominous soundtracks.  They try to scare potential voters away from a candidate with distorted attacks on their records, their past, and even their personal lives. The candidates themselves are often reluctant to run these kinds of mud-slinging ads for fear that they will provoke a voter backlash.  But they are very happy to let outside groups take the heat for these useful – but ethically questionable – tactics.  Outside money groups can funnel millions into a campaign this way and give their candidate a significant leg up in his or her race for office.

A second problem is the large and ever-increasing amount of money from wealthy interests that is making its way into elections through these outside groups.  The Center for Responsive Politics found that in the last ten years, $4.5 billion has been spent by these groups.  There is so much money available that sometimes the spending of these outside groups dwarfs the spending by the candidates themselves.  Since the Citizens United ruling, outside spending has exceeded candidate spending in 126 congressional races.  In the 2016 U.S. Senate race between Pat Toomey and Katie McGinty, the two candidates spent $53 million. Outside groups spent $127 million.

In the 2018 elections, 96% of the funding for Super PACs was provided by the top 1% of donors – a mere 1,562 people.

Interestingly, most of this money did not come from corporations as some had initially feared.  Businesses seem worried about potential backlashes from employees and customers.  So most of this outside money comes from a small number of wealthy and ultra-wealthy individuals and families (whose money comes from business of course). In those same ten years, the top 100 donors and their spouses account for $2 billion given to these outside spending groups.  In the 2018 elections, 96% of the funding for Super PACs was provided by the top 1% of donors – a mere 1,562 people.  These groups have truly become the playthings of millionaires and billionaires.  Recently, many candidates like to brag about the number of small donations they receive from average citizens.  But it is clear that one check from one of these megadonors to outside groups can easily outweigh the contributions of thousands of these small donors.

Dark and Grey Money

The third issue with these outside groups is the problem of “dark money.”  Any fair election requires transparency in funding – the public needs to know who is donating money to help candidates.  But 501(c)(4) organizations do not have to disclose their donors.  During the last ten years, these “dark money” groups flooded American elections with almost a billion dollars in spending.  Even more disturbing is that these groups also launder their donations and give dark money to other outside groups.  In the 2018 midterm elections alone, 501(c)(4) organizations funneled $176 million to Super PACs and other outside groups. Thus many of the Super PACs have become “grey money” groups that must only disclose a segment of their donors. During the 2018 election, more than 50% of the money spent by outside groups (excluding party committees) was by groups that did not fully disclose their donors. So in more and more cases, Americans simply don’t know who is trying to influence our elections.

Why It Matters

A campaign financing system that allows private money to be transformed into political power is particularly bad in the United States because private money is so unequally distributed.  Income inequality and wealth inequality is higher in the U.S. than in any other major democracy. (citation) The distribution of wealth, for instance, is stunningly unequal. In 2019, the bottom 50% of American households owned less than 2% of the wealth, while the top 10% owned 70% — $74.5 trillion.  A campaign finance system that allows the rich to rule is one reason why some researchers are now suggesting that the U.S. might better be called a “plutocracy” (rule by the rich) or an “oligarchy” (rule by the few) instead of a “democracy.”

Being a plutocracy helps to explain why average Americans have so much trouble getting their way in Congress.  One important study that looked at 20 years of policymaking in Congress and which groups had the most effects on that process concluded that “economic elites and organized interest groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no influence.” Gilens 564) And we don’t have to look far for evidence of this clear disconnection between policymakers and the majority of the public they are supposed to serve.  75% of Americans want government to reduce greenhouse gasses, 75% wanted a higher minimum wage, and 64% want more affordable colleges – but for decades Congress has failed to act. A true democracy requires that political power be distributed relatively equally and that government is responsive to its citizens.  When money can so easily buy political power, neither of these things is true.

Other Democracies Do It Better

Given the many decades of failed reform efforts, Americans might be forgiven for thinking that the dominance of private money in campaigns is an unsolvable problem.  But in fact most other major democracies have found numerous straightforward ways to ensure that rich individuals and corporations do not play a major role in financing elections.  It turns out that if a country does not have a Supreme Court that insists that money is speech and that corporation are people, this is not a hard problem to solve.

One way that other democracies lessen the part played by private money is lessening the role that any money plays in campaigns.  For example, many countries have short campaigns periods.  In the U.S., presidential campaigns can start a year or more before election day.  But by law, parliamentary elections in Great Britain last only 20 weeks.  In Canada, they run only 11 weeks.  The shorter the campaign period, the less important money becomes, and less important large donors become.

Seventy-seven percent of European countries also provide free or subsidized access to the media for political parties.  In the U.S., the need to spend millions on expensive TV ads is one of the main reasons campaigns are so expensive.  A few countries, such as Norway, simply ban campaign ads from radio and television.  In Germany, each party creates just one 90-second ad for the entire campaign. The number of times the ad airs on the two major channels is determined by the proportion of votes won by the party in the last election.  A small party, for example, may be allowed to air its ad only 4 times during the six-week campaign.  These kinds of approaches to election media lessen the need for candidates and parties to spend money and thus lessen the influence of large donors.

Free or restricted media and short election seasons mean that campaign spending is dramatically lower than in the U.S.  In Germany, the main parties spend between 20 and 30 million euros to elect all of their members of parliament.  That amount of money wouldn’t even fund four successful Senate campaigns in the United States, which average about $10 million dollars each.  And of course U.S. presidential candidates often spend hundreds of millions each on their campaigns.

Some countries have gone further to reduce campaign expenditures and have enacted legal limits on campaign spending, including Austria, Italy, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.  In Canada, for instance, the limit on campaigns for parliament average about $110,000 per district – much less than the money spent on U.S. congressional campaigns.  These limits mean candidates don’t have trouble raising the necessary donations and have no need to rely on wealthy donors.

Most other democracies also substitute large amounts of public money for private money in campaigns. This is probably the single most effective way to lessen the undemocratic effects of private contributions.  In Europe, 86% of the countries provide some direct public funding to parties and it accounts for an average of 66% of party funds spent in elections. Norway has some of the most generous public subsidies and so private donors account for only one-fourth of the money spent on campaigns.  Obviously, the more campaigns rely on public funding, the less room there is for private money from special interests to undermine the fairness of elections.

Most European countries also either ban or heavily restrict campaign contributions from private organizations like corporations and unions.  Many, like Belgium, Canada and France, also place limits the amount of individual contributions to parliamentary candidates.  The figure is $1,000 in Canada. One international study described the popular logic behind these kinds of limits.

“Large donations and contributions from companies are considered potentially dangerous for democratic political processes. Thus states have introduced different types of rules to prevent or limit the possibility that private companies or wealthy individuals can influence the political arena, and to enable political parties to maintain sufficient independence from the private interests of a wealthy few.”

By and large, other major democracies are also not plagued by Super PACs and other sources of outside spending to affect election outcomes. In France, for instance, it is illegal for corporations, unions, and independent PACs to fund their own ads in favor of their preferred candidates.

In other democracies, there is no public outcry about policies to limit the role of private money in campaigns.

On the negative side, as you might imagine, most European voters are up in arms about these heavy-handed government attempts to limit their free speech, restrain their ability to spend their own money, and interfere with their desire to see as many political TV ads as possible for months and months at a time. Well – actually not.  There does not seem to be any public outcry about these attempts to limit the role of private money in campaigns – in fact these efforts seem to be seen as a good way to protect the democratic integrity of elections.  Go figure.

Interestingly, there are several countries, including Australia, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Spain, that have rejected limits on both donations and on campaign spending.  But this is not because they think wealthy organizations and individuals have the right to influence elections.  It’s because these countries already have other electoral arrangements in place (many mentioned earlier) to discourage this from happening.   As Paul Waldman has explained:

In many other countries, candidates are either forbidden from advertising on television or given free time.  In most places, there’s substantial public funding of campaigns, and candidates are often forbidden from campaigning until a relatively short period before election day. Put all that together and you have elections where, even if it would technically be legal to rain huge amounts of money down on candidates, nobody considers it worth their while.

Solutions for the U.S.

The most obvious solution to our campaign finance problems is to follow the example of other democracies.  We could mandate shorter campaigns, limit campaign spending, ban outside spending, limit and/or subsidize television ads, require public funding – all of which we know can lessen the undue influence of wealthy interests on elections.  But all of these policies have been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

One solution to this frustrating situation would be for the Court to reverse its unfortunate rulings in cases like Buckley and Citizens United.  But given the strong conservative/libertarian orientation of the current Supreme Court, this is highly unlikely. So some reform groups like American Promise have proposed Constitutional amendments that would allow greater restrictions on campaign spending and overturn the Court’s rulings banning such laws.  Such amendments would be a huge breakthrough and pave the way to adopting European-like laws to rein in campaign spending and outside spending and to provide for public financing.

Other campaign finance reformers are skeptical about the chances of passing these amendments, citing the massive super-majority obstacles that must be overcome to pass any amendment in the U.S. Instead, they would rather dedicate their resources to working within the limitation set by the Court. In the past, however, such efforts have not been very successful.  Congress passed, for instance, limits on individual donations and PAC donations to campaigns.  But these are easily gotten around by bundling of donations, and my shifting campaign money to outside spending.  However, creative reformers continue to come up with new fixes that are allowable under current Supreme Court rulings – such as Clean Elections.

Clean Elections is a voluntary public financing model favored by many reformers.  Candidates qualify for public funding by collecting a certain amount of small $10-$25 donations.  This ensures that they are serious candidates.  To receive public funding they must pledge to accept no private funds and to spend none of their own money.  All candidates, both major and minor party ones, get the same amount of financing.  If independent PACs enter the race and spend money on ads in favor of one candidate, the rival candidate receives additional matching public funds to help combat those ads.

The advantages of this approach are many and impressive.  It eliminates the “wealth primary.” It levels the financial playing field between candidates so none has an artificial advantage of others.  It enables voters, not contributors, to be the main determinants of who wins an election.  And it encourages legislators to pay more attention to their constituents’ needs, rather than the needs of special interest contributors.  Legislators also spend much less time raising money and more time doing the job they were elected to do.

These advantages have become obvious in the few states, like Maine, where the Clean Elections model is now used.  Most candidates, both Democratic and Republican, are quite happy to use the public funding and avoid the distractions and questionable ethics involved in continuous fundraising.  Over 70% of Maine citizens want to keep the system, and only 20% want to repeal it.  There is every reason to believe that such a system would also find broad public acceptance if it were used more widely.

Clean Elections is an attempt at full private financing, so candidates can be free of all independent money.  Other suggested reforms rely on partial public financing to try to offset some of the effects of private money.  One of the best known of these plans is called “Voting with Dollars” and was proposed by Yale Law Professors Bruce Akerman and Ian Ayer.   In their plan, each voter gets a $50 voucher from the government to donate to the candidate of their choice – thus giving all citizens at least some input into election financing.  This approach would actually raise the current limit on private donations to candidates, but they would all have to be anonymous – paid into a blind trust and then distributed to the candidates.  So politicians would supposedly not know to whom they are beholden.  These private contributions, however, would still probably give some candidates an advantage over others.

Seattle, Washington has also implemented a voucher program which gives registered voters $100 to donate to city council candidates.  This did not stop large outside spending from local companies like Amazon, but several city councilors were elected without the help of wealthy supporters.

Another approach to partial public funding is matching funds, where the government matches donations from small contributors.  In 2019, the U.S. House passed a  bill (blocked in the Republican Senate) that would match each dollar from a private donor up to $200, with $6 in public funds, thus creating a maximum donation of $1,200.  Again, this does not prevent the participation of wealthy contributors and outside spending, but gives a better chance to candidates who do not rely on them.  New York City, Los Angeles, and Berkeley have also enacted matching programs for small donations.  Several other major metropolitan areas have also passed various forms of public funding in recent years, including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Denver.

Full public financing is still the gold standard for getting private money out of elections.

None of these partial funding programs is perfect and most do little about the curse of outside money.  Full public financing is still the gold standard for getting private money out of elections.  But all of these plans are a step forward and much better than leaving things in the sorry state they are in now.

Chances for Reform:  Not Bad

On the negative side is the Supreme Court, an unelected and unaccountable political body that has blocked almost every meaningful reform attempt in this area.  On the plus side, the public seems increasingly upset about our current financing system and the dominance of wealthy interests. Over 80% of Americans say they oppose the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that allows unlimited corporate spending. Over 75% of Americans believe there “should be limits on the amount of money individuals and groups can spend on campaigns.”  Another poll found that 69% of Americans thought Super PACs should be illegal.  All the more impressive was the bi-partisan nature of the public support for this: it included a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. And 52% of those polled said they “strongly” support such a ban on outside spending.  This kind of broad and strong support for reform is a good sign.

Unfortunately, however, public support for the best reform – public financing – is a little less strong.  While voters in states that have Clean Elections overwhelmingly support it, nationwide polls show that 50% support it and 44% oppose it.  In addition, where reformers have tried to pass Clean Elections, special interests and many politicians have fought hard against it.  Many incumbents benefit from our current system and amass large financial war chests that discourage challengers.  And special interests are loath to give up one of their main sources of political influence.

However, on the plus side is the large number of citizen groups and advocacy organizations working on this reform.  These include American Promise, Common Cause, Brennan Center for Justice, Democracy Initiative, Demos, Equal Citizens, Move to Amend, RepresentUs, and others. Granted they are all not working on the same solutions – but the sheer number of these groups provides an important organizational infrastructure necessary to push through reform.

At this point, with gridlock in place in Washington, the best chances for reform are probably at the state and local level.  For one thing, local groups can use referendums to pass campaign finance reform – an option not available on the national level.   Many elected officials are hesitant to reform a financing system that put them into office, but citizens can make an end run around them with public referendums. That is why reform groups like RepresentUs are putting their emphasis on organizing for this reform on the state and local level.

All in all, campaign finance is an area of democratic reform where we can be hopeful that there will be some positive changes.  It is unlikely that these measures will be as effective as those found in many other democracies, but they would certainly be a step in the right direction.

read the next issue: 8. Gerrymandering


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