Each Wednesday we feature an article from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org.
“Before Congress can truly meet the challenges of energy and climate change, unemployment, and financial regulation, it must address the perverse incentives that mire each and every one of its members in a perpetual race for private campaign funds.”- Tim Wirth, Former Senator from Colorado
Like it or not, money and politics are inseparable.
In the 2012 presidential race, the candidates spent a record $7 billion. It is projected that these numbers will reach $10 billion for the 2016 endeavor. Both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush will potentially spend more than $2 billion each, twice as much as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent in 2012. Although the 1990s and early 2000s saw various legislative efforts designed to reduce the influence of money in elections, these efforts have been undermined in the past few years. Recent Supreme Court decisions have heightened the impact of money on the political process in ways that will affect our nation for generations. The McCutcheon case (in which the Supreme Court struck down caps on donations made by individuals to candidates or political parties during a two-year election cycle) and the Citizens United case have moved the bar drastically towards the unlimited influence of large donors. Furthermore, in Congress, those who spend the most win over 90 percent of all elections.
I learned firsthand the heavy influence of money in politics. As a recent candidate for the Chicago City Council, I found that the part of the campaign process that was least inspiring quickly became the most important. When people choose to run for public office, campaign finances are not foremost in their thoughts. For me, the tug of social justice, the idea of making a difference, and the encouraging words of supporters rang loudly in my ear during the months leading up to the announcement of my candidacy. I imagined myself connecting with voters, inspiring vision, and fighting for a more prosperous future. What quickly became apparent was that the ideals of democratic statesmanship are drastically different from the reality of elections.
Vision vs. Reality
I was warned that I would need to raise at least $100,000 in order to be competitive in our race as the advantages of incumbency are significant. Although I knew this to be true, I envisioned a campaign where individual voter connections would trump the need for substantial amounts of money-or at least lessen it. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. While a positive message and connections with the people can go a long way, reaching unengaged voters and inspiring them to action requires a larger effort of media ads, signage, paid workers, community events, and direct mailings.
Furthermore, the practical organization to begin a campaign effort also requires substantial funding. For example, in many elections, one of the easiest ways for candidates to reduce electoral competition is to challenge signatures on the ballot. This is a staple of Chicago politics, and for two months, we fought these efforts from our opponent. A team of lawyers challenged a variety of minute details about our signature submissions, including the location of signatures, legibility, and the address information of both me and other signers. This required multiple legal hearings with the Board of Elections to keep our campaign alive. I was fortunate enough to have a relationship with an attorney who fought our case for very little compensation. Without this donation of time, the cost of fighting these challenges could have proven overwhelming. Many candidates I knew in our same city-wide election saw their campaigns end prematurely after failing to do the same, based on limited finances and connections.
Another challenge we faced was that a few of the larger potential donors wanted to wait for a variety of success indicators before giving money. They initially wanted to wait until we made the ballot, then until we polled well, and finally for endorsements. While I understood the logic, and we eventually were successful in some of these areas, this position posed a unique challenge. In order to win money and support, we had to have money and support! Consequently, some of our larger pledged contributions either didn’t come or arrived in a time frame that limited their impact.
In order to counter the challenge of courting the larger donors, I relied heavily on family and friends for donations. Calling former classmates and co-workers, some of whom I hadn’t spoken to for years, in order to make a financial request was a daunting task. My daily call times were initially a source of fear, and as a candidate, I had to spend hours each day in this effort. Although many of my contacts were extremely supportive, the task never felt fully comfortable. I eventually became much more skilled at the art of asking for money and found ways to make my verbal, phone, and online appeals somewhat enjoyable and successful. I saw a variety of fundraising victories, and even went a stretch of a few weeks where I consistently raised $5,000 a week. Nevertheless, over time, the pockets of my friends and family wore thin. Big money from large organizations and donors is a critical component to winning elections.
Increasingly, it is these groups that dominate the political process. Consider that one percent of the population provides 80 percent of all campaign contributions. The money of a few not only insures election victory, but also determines which legislation is passed. Take the gun control issue for example. In 2013, the Senate considered the Manchin-Toomey amendment, which would have required background checks on all commercial sales of guns. The bill failed. If the issue was solely based on the bill’s merit, this story would not be tragic. Yet in the year leading up to the vote, $240,000 was spent by interest groups to support gun control, while a whopping $5.6 million was spent to oppose it. Faced with these odds, the bill didn’t stand a chance.
Changing Our Voting Culture
Ultimately, as citizens, we bear the responsibility for repairing our broken process. To that end, I would like to suggest four areas where we can make a significant difference.
1. We need to understand the vital role we play in this process. We often support candidates without seeing the need to give money or encourage our networks to do so. As citizens, we should embrace the power of our citizenship and our ability to reject the status quo in how elections are done. We can and should elect and empower leaders who will make substantial changes.
2. We need to pay better attention to who the candidates are in a given election and not look to election advertising as our sole source of information. In my campaign, I recall otherwise informed and intelligent people saying that they weren’t aware of who was running. They felt it was the candidate’s responsibility to inform them through signs, advertising, and commercials. On some level, I can’t blame them, as companies spend over $180 billion dollars a year in consumer advertising. This barrage of advertising, combined with the normal pressures of life, mean that candidates running for political office are not necessarily foremost on the minds of most voters. However, for months prior to Election Day, the information on the candidates for an office are a matter of public record. The local board of elections, newspapers, and community groups all provide ample information on the different candidates and their positions.
3. We need to encourage and support non-partisan voter education initiatives. During my campaign, I was a little surprised that more people did not research potential candidates prior to voting. Even at the polls on Election Day, our team was able to persuade voters who’d yet to make up their minds. While this was beneficial for me as a candidate, it was discouraging as a citizen. Even a small amount of time invested in pre-voting education empowers voters to fulfill their proper roles in our republic. Unfortunately, most voter education is done by either candidates or interest groups with clear agendas. Making independent and thorough information easily accessible to voters will go a long way towards changing the culture of voting. Projects like votesmart.org, which details the voting records and positions of current politicians, are a step in the right direction and deserve expansion. Prior to becoming a candidate, I conducted election workshops in my local community. The outcomes were significant as numerous people remarked that they felt emboldened for the first time to move beyond simple straight ticket voting and reactions to political advertising. Eventually, every race in this country should have dedicated teams of nonpartisan educators to empower citizens to exercise their rights. Voting is too important to leave to chance. We must educate voters on candidates and issues with the same intensity political campaigns use to win their support.
4. We need to support the public financing of campaigns. In my election, a referendum on this topic gained the support of 79 percent of voters. Unfortunately, reforms like this often lack support among lawmakers as they directly threaten the power balance of our system. At present, thirteen states have some level of public financing, mostly providing matching funds for candidates who meet a specific threshold. Although these programs are limited in their national scope and fail to impact all state offices, they are a step in the right direction. Expanding these initiatives in additional states would contribute greatly to changing the perception of the voting public that their leaders are beholden to the special interest groups that fund their campaigns. In order to significantly increase citizen participation, it is critical that we bolster their faith by instituting these kinds of vital election reforms.
In the Meantime…
My experience in Chicago politics reminds me of a quote from comedian Bill Maher. Although Maher has been an outspoken supporter of gun control, he was recently quoted as saying “As long as we live in the gun country, I ain’t giving up my gun.” Maher’s statement reflects the reality of making decisions in a country where one’s individual ideals are often far from the nation’s collective reality. We must continue to work to remove the influence of money from the political process. Understanding our vital role as citizens, educating ourselves about candidates, and supporting the public financing of campaigns and non-partisan voter education initiatives are critical in this fight. However, until we significantly change this reality, Bill Maher’s approach makes sense. We need to financially support political underdogs who, in order to make a difference, need economic encouragement from those who believe in their cause. Verbal support and even volunteering are not nearly enough. Citizens have to put their money where their mouths are and support new candidates. While we strive to reform our political system, this approach may be our best current hope for winning back our democracy.
- Ted Williams III is a Professor of Political Science in the City Colleges of Chicago