How we can all fix it
Leading candidates on both sides of the aisle are agreed that big money is corrupting our democracy
Rarely have we seen an issue in American politics that more unites the American people than fearsome opposition to big money in politics. Poll after poll affirms the pervasive sense that our electoral system is fundamentally flawed and democracy itself is on the rocks.
From Donald Trump’s dismissal of fellow contenders as mere “puppets of big money” to Ben Carson’s promise “not to lick the boots of any billionaire” to Bernie Sanders’ cries of a “democracy under fierce attack by the billionaire class” to Hillary Clinton’s disavowals of Citizens United, leading candidates on both sides of the aisle are agreed that big money is corrupting our democracy.
If the problem is universally understood, what about the solutions?
We begin with a simple diagnosis of the need. While “too much money in politics” is understandably a popular refrain, political communication counts in campaigns and communication is not free. Rather than concern ourselves primarily with the amount of money in campaigns, we should focus instead on the source.
Just 2 percent of the American people currently contributes to politics and a small fraction of 1 percent provides the lion’s share of campaign cash. In fact, the top five spenders in 2014 provided more money nationally than 98 percent of Americans combined.
At the state level, just 591 individuals representing 0.06 percent of New Hampshire’s population provided the majority of campaign funds last year, according to the Open Democracy Index.
The consequences of concentrated giving on the part of wealthy special interests are clear as day: Instead of responding to the needs of their constituents, politicians are required to satisfy the interests of their investors first – wealthy individuals and special interest groups who share little in common with the average voter.
To radically expand the source of campaign cash, Congress and the states should adopt small donor incentives like vouchers, tax credits or public matching funds that empower ordinary citizens to fund campaigns – provided the candidates say no to larger private donations and participate in public debates. Such a voluntary system of citizen-funded elections enhances First Amendment free speech and has been ruled constitutional by the courts.
At the same time, it is necessary to limit the flood of outside money spent on behalf of candidates by ostensibly independent Super PACs and their ilk.
Speaking as a jurist, I take serious issue with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and related rulings undoing decades’ worth of campaign finance limitations and permitting corporations and unions to spend unlimited money in elections.
Indeed, a comprehensive approach to the First Amendment would lift up the voices of ordinary citizens through small donor incentives coupled with reasonable limits on the amount of private funds. Those changes will require new appointments to the Supreme Court or a constitutional amendment, which the Legislature can advance in January by passing Senate Bill 136.
To ensure these succeed, Congress and the states must establish enabling conditions by passing three concomitant reforms.
First, there must be full and prompt transparency of all campaign donations and spending, beginning with an executive order from President Obama centered on government contractors.
Second, there must be tough restrictions on lobbyists’ and contractors’ purchasing power on Capitol Hill through campaign donations, and on public officials cashing in on their connections as lobbyists.
Third, there must be tough, nonpartisan enforcement of all election laws through a comprehensive overhaul of the Federal Election Commission.
A vibrant democracy will not be achieved through campaign finance reform alone. We must work to strengthen the democratic character of elections and the electorate by replacing partisan gerrymandering with independent nonpartisan redistricting commissions and by modernizing voting laws so that no citizen is legally disenfranchised or unnecessarily hindered from casting their ballots. A secure system of universal voter registration, an Election Day holiday and expanded civics education can take us a long way toward full and equal participation in politics.
Of course, “solutions” are of little value when they exist on paper alone. That is why a new We the People Pledge (nhrebellion.org/pledge) calling on all candidates to support the six core reforms outlined above deserves the attention of New Hampshire voters and the presidential candidates. Only when the candidates understand that money in politics is not an idle concern but a driving issue for voters in the 2016 campaign, will they respond with more than platitudes about the problem.
With just three months to go until New Hampshire voters cast their ballots in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, the time for voters and candidates alike to move from problems to solutions and support is now. Democracy demands no less.
John Broderick served as chief justice of the NH Supreme Court from 2004-2010. Daniel Weeks is executive director of the nonpartisan group Open Democracy based in Concord. Both are leaders of the NH Rebellion and signers of the We the People pledge.