American democracy has, since its inception, remained an extraordinary experiment in self-governance.
There is perhaps nothing more fundamental to the nation than the ability of all citizens to participate in their government.
But, as we are all increasingly aware, a relatively small number of people and organizations—often while remaining in the shadows—have gained overwhelming power over our political system through their ability and willingness to spend large amounts of money to influence who runs for office, who is elected and the issues that will be discussed. We all pay a price for such an imbalanced system, not the least of which is loss of faith in public institutions that no longer represent everyone.
However, contrary to outspoken cynics or conventional wisdom from Beltway pundits, there are a myriad of solutions that can ensure policymakers are focused on their constituents, not wealthy special interests. Not only are these common-sense fixes enthusiastically supported by Americans of all political stripes, but in many cases, they have already been implemented and are making democracy work for everyone in states and localities around the country.
This report, developed jointly by Issue One and the Campaign Legal Center, chronicles these solutions, and provides real-world examples that can be used as a blueprint for reformers who want to enact real change in their communities. Most importantly, these ideas have undergone strict legal review to ensure they present the strongest case for constitutional viability; the resulting report lays out a suite of money-in-politics reforms that are both popular and could pass muster with the current Supreme Court.
The key findings of this report have been broadly separated into five categories that represent the basic principles of any high-functioning democracy: everyone participates, everyone knows, everyone plays by the same common-sense rules, everyone is held accountable, and everyone has a voice.
In order for a democracy to truly represent all people, everyone needs to participate in it. That’s why the single most important fix to our system is to enact some form of citizen funding that incentivizes small donors to give to political campaigns they support. Whether through matching funds for contributions, or block grants directly to the candidates, citizen funding programs democratize political money, free politicians from the never-ending money chase and empower more people to run for office. Best of all, in the places where they’re implemented, these systems enjoy extraordinary levels of public support.
For example, the report examines the extremely successful Clean Elections program in Connecticut. With more than 80 percent of qualified candidates participating, the program is the best-in-the-nation for elevating all voices and ensuring elected officials are focused on their constituents, not fundraising.
Everyone deserves to know who funds our politics and how the money is spent. Disclosure is one area of campaign finance law the Supreme Court continues to uphold because it provides critical information for voters at the ballot box. The most effective disclosure regimes are those that clearly reveal all types of election-related spending in an immediate and user-friendly way while balancing privacy rights of individuals. Additionally, they are often effective at pulling back the curtain on secretive dark money that has permeated our elections. In doing so, enforcement agencies, journalists and the public can more clearly see who is trying to influence elected officials and how that money flows through the system.
This report highlights California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, particularly its efforts to tackle dark money spending in elections. Because its regulations attempt to capture political spending regardless of the type of entity making the expenditure, California has been extraordinarily successful at revealing the true sources behind much of the money spent in the state.
Everyone Plays by Common-Sense Rules
Next, everyone needs to play by the same common-sense rules so we know the scales are not tipped in anyone’s favor. Easy fixes include regulating gifts to elected officials, ensuring contributions are not being traded for policy and cracking down on lobbyists skirting the law. These simple ideas prevent corruption, ensure an even playing field, engender faith in public institutions and reduce barriers to political participation.
South Carolina’s lobbyist fundraising restrictions are notable not just for their stringency, but the time period to which they apply. By prohibiting lobbyists from ever giving “anything of value” to a politician—even a cup of coffee—the Palmetto State has essentially banned any and all campaign contributions from lobbyists.
Everyone is Held Accountable
Laws need teeth, so everyone should be held accountable for breaking the rules. In part, that means emboldening nonpartisan enforcement agencies like the Federal Election Commission to proactively go after bad actors and ensuring they have all the resources necessary to do so. This is a critical aspect of any campaign finance system, because it instills confidence in the democratic process and discourages malfeasance by demonstrating that rule-breakers will be punished.
New York City’s Campaign Finance Board has the ability to audit all campaigns and levy penalties against those who skirt the rules. The report details all the ways the Board has elevated city politics and established itself as a model administration and enforcement agency.
Everyone has a Voice
In the long term, America needs a democratic system in which everyone has a voice. The main avenue through which this goal can be achieved is the court system. Specifically, we need to protect our existing campaign finance laws while finding new opportunities to expand and clarify, such as expounding the definition of “illegal coordination” between super PACs and campaigns. Furthermore, we need to develop a new pro-reform jurisprudence in lower courts, law schools and legal scholarship, and we need to encourage the appointment of judges and Supreme Court justices who recognize how critically important these laws are to the functioning of our democracy. This will take time, but as other reforms mentioned in this report are enacted across the country, a new legal landscape will follow.
The most fertile ground for reform is through legislatures and citizen-driven ballot measures at the state and local level—the laboratories of democracy. At the federal level, the best opportunities to rack up victories center around strengthening and expanding disclosure and transparency laws. In both cases, with each victory, the public will become more convinced that reform is not just feasible, but necessary.
This report is just the first step in a larger strategy to overcome entrenched cynicism and assist lawmakers as they push for change. When we win, we will have a government that is truly of, by and for the people.