Tag Archives: campaign finance

Money Makes The World Go Round…

Follow the money…

A recent study found that a dozen “mega donors” contributed one in every 13 Dollars raised by political campaigns since 2009. The study was undertaken in an effort to determine whether and how the role of the super rich had grown following the loosening of restrictions on political spending by the U.S. Supreme Court more than a decade ago.

The growing influence of multimillion-dollar megadonors has been accompanied by another, competing trend: a surge of small online donations to politicians of both parties. Those contributions — in $5, $10 and $25 increments — have given Democrats and Republicans an alternate source of money beyond the super rich.

Still, the study found that the top 100 ZIP codes for political giving in the United States, which hold less than 1 percent of the total population, accounted for roughly 20 percent of the $45 billion that federal candidates and political groups raised between January 2009 and December 2020. The study used data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles figures from the Federal Election Commission.

The study didn’t include state-level contributions, so the picture that emerged is incomplete, but the overall message is clear enough: money matters disproportionately in American politics.

The amount of money at a candidate’s disposal isn’t necessarily dispositive; as a a friend who used to be a political strategist has always maintained, a good candidate with a good message who raises at least enough money to get that message out can defeat an opponent with a much larger campaign war-chest. But anyone who dismisses the significance of campaign funding is delusional.

That said, trying to get a handle on campaign finance is a fraught exercise, and many seemingly good ideas end up generating unanticipated–and negative–consequences.

Take the reforms that have focused on limiting candidate spending.  It sounds fair, but imposing uniform limits tend to work in favor of incumbents, because most Incumbents begin the election cycle with high name recognition. Challengers need to build that recognition (which is one reason why celebrities with no government experience have a leg up in such contests).  Once a non-famous challenger  spends enough to build that name recognition, campaign spending limits kick in. Typically, that’s the point at which the incumbent is just beginning to spend. In other words, just as a challenger starts to become competitive, spending limits choke off political competition.

So what would effective, workable reform look like? Previous efforts–caps on contribution amounts, reporting requirements and the like–have been circumvented by canny lawyers. The hope that small donations facilitated by the Internet would be a countervailing force has dimmed, as it has become apparent that it is easier for fringe candidates to generate those funds from equally fringe voters (evidently, Marjorie Taylor Greene has taken in very substantial amounts). It would be great if we could set time limits for campaigning, but that would probably help incumbents as well–and in any event, run afoul of  the First Amendment.

Given the rules as they exist, the only counter to the influence of money in American politics is the franchise–and the multitude of civic and political organizations that are working to expand voter turnout. As we approach the 2022 midterms, Republicans are working furiously to counter those efforts, and as I have noted in previous posts, the GOP goes into each election cycle with a number of structural and financial advantages, not to mention a media ecosystem supporting–nay, trumpeting– their messaging. (And no, MSNBC tilts left but is absolutely not a counterweight to Fox, et al. Accusations to the contrary are assertions of a false equivalency.)

Democratic systems are supposed to reflect the will of the people. Political actors who enjoy enough resources and structural advantages can and do ignore and subvert that will. How we even the playing field, how we facilitate “fair fights” and prevent donations from drowning out the voice of  the public is by no means clear.

But at the end of the day, money really does make the political world go around….and we need to figure out a way to lessen its impact.

 

Democracy Vouchers

The outrage that followed the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United focused national attention on a problem that has long preceded that unfortunate ruling: the influence of money on democratic deliberation.

Even if we ignore the armies of lobbyists and the corrupting influence of “big money” campaign donations in Washington and our state capitals, anyone who is at all familiar with the way in which policy is made understands that our elected representatives respond to the constituents from whom they hear, and those constituents are highly unlikely to be poor people.

People who are struggling to make ends meet rarely have time or energy to visit legislative bodies, testify in hearings or participate in grass-roots lobbying efforts. And it goes without saying that they are not numbered among the donors to legislative campaigns. As a result, even the most conscientious lawmakers (and they do exist) simply do not hear the voices and perspectives of working class Americans.

Seattle has recently embarked upon an effort to change that dynamic, at least to a degree.

If money amplifies the voices of wealthy Americans in politics, Seattle is trying something that aims to give low-income and middle-class voters a signal boost.

The city’s new “Democracy Voucher” program, the first of its kind in the US, provides every eligible Seattle resident with $100 in taxpayer-funded vouchers to donate to the candidates of their choice. The goal is to incentivize candidates to take heed of a broad range of residents – homeless people, minimum-wage workers, seniors on fixed incomes – as well as the big-dollar donors who often dictate the political conversation.

This August’s primary is the trial run for the program. But before Seattle can crow about having re-enfranchised long-overlooked voters, it must contend with conservative opposition.

A Libertarian law firm has sued the city to stop the program, alleging that democracy vouchers violate the first amendment rights of homeowners because their taxes are funding vouchers that will be contributed to candidates they oppose. That case is pending, but constitutional lawyers consider its prospects dubious.

The program opponents appear to be in the minority; the voucher program and its funding mechanism (a 10-year, $30m property tax levy) were approved by voters in a ballot measure in November 2015. All registered voters are sent the vouchers automatically. Residents who are not registered or who lack a permanent address – such as homeless people – can apply by mail or in person.

Seattle’s proposal joins other efforts that have emerged in the wake of the Obama and Sanders campaigns, both of which demonstrated that significant funds could be raised through appeals to small donors–no one of whom, presumably, would have the same ability to influence policy as individuals contributing large sums.

Last fall, South Dakota voters approved a program similar to Seattle’s, joining more than a dozen other states with some form of public financing, usually a matching fund for small campaign donations. Cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Berkeley, California, also followed the public-financing trend last year.

Democracy Vouchers are unlikely to make much of a dent in current levels of inequality of political influence, but the effort is encouraging. It represents an acknowledgment of the disparity in political influence between the rich and the rest, and to the extent it encourages candidates to focus  fundraising strategies on vouchers/small donors, it should add a (currently absent) perspective to the political conversation.

Follow the Money–More Easily

This is fascinating.

According to a report I read–naturally, I don’t remember where–a 16 year-old whiz kid has created a plug-in for browsers that allows you to hover over the name of a member of congress and get a pop-up that lists all the donations made to that congressperson-and who made them. Which lobbyists, corporations, etc.

Think about that for a minute.

The Internet has enabled so much crap–conspiracy theories, mind-numbing games, disinformation, celebrity worship…we sometimes forget what a marvelous tool it can be. The same technology that keeps Sarah Palin’s latest moronic utterances in circulation can also be used to enhance transparency and accountability.

The kid’s motto is  “Some are red, some are blue, ALL are green”!  

Maybe it takes sixteen-year-olds to show us the way.

 

 

 

Free Speech and Democratic Institutions

David Schultz is an election law expert who teaches at Hamline University and the University of Minnesota law school. (He and I also co-authored my last book, a Law and Policy textbook.) When the Court handed down the McCutcheon decision, he took to his own blog to analyze it. 

On one level the Supreme Court yet again issued a decision in which it examined one issue about American politics and elections–the role of money or the right of individuals to make political contributions–without adequately considering the broader impact of that decision on the actual performance of American democracy.  The Court treats in isolation one aspect of our political democracy–the right of an individual to spend money–without considering other competing values and how they come together to form a more complete theory about government, politics, and elections.  Yes individuals may have a right to expend for political purposes, and such an act may further an important value of free speech, but that is not the only act and value that must be furthered or considered in a democracy.

Democratic theorists such as Robert Dahl point out that a theory of democracy includes several values, such as voting equality, effective participation, enlightened understanding, control of the agenda, and inclusion.  For each of these values there is a need to construct institutions that  help sustain them or give them meaning.   Effective participation includes institutions that create for example free and fair elections, opportunities for non-electoral participation, and competitive parties. However, none of these values operates in isolation; a real concept of democracy requires that one understand how they interact, coming together to form a fuller theory of American Democracy.

 

Someone once said that the problem with the contemporary Supreme Court is that none of the Justices ever held elective office–that we’d be better served if one of these brilliant jurists had ever had to run for county sheriff.

It may be time to sign on to the effort to amend the constitution.

THIS is Troubling……

The Indianapolis Times posted a fairly lengthy piece today devoted to some troubling questions raised by the award of city contracts to Ballard’s largest contributors. For example, this paragraph:

“Ballard Raised More Than $1.3 Million From Contributors Who Have Received $300 Million In Contracts: Ballard has received $1,368,693 in contributions to his reelection campaign from businesses and/or the employees of those businesses contracted with the city while in office. The total sum of the contracts those businesses have had with the city is $309,476,510. (Marion County Election Board, Ballard Campaign Finance Reports, Indianapolis Contract Database)”

Now, the Times is a Democratic blog, and it can be expected to spin reports to make Republicans look bad, just as Republican leaning blogs can be expected to spin in contrary direction. But if these numbers–and others reported in the same post-are accurate, this behavior raises still more ethical issues for an administration that is facing several other allegations of impropriety. There’s the garage deal in Broad Ripple, the lease of space in Eastgate, and the shenanigans that allowed the parking meter deal to squeak through by one vote (cast by a member of the contractor’s law firm…).

Can we spell “appearance of impropriety”?