By Ben Lennon
| Ever since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United, it’s become clear that individual voices matter less while big donors such as corporations have their voice amplified. Candidates have to spend big to win big, and they thus cater to big donors. Many have lamented this development and there are a lot of groups hard at work fighting back and trying to take big money out of politics. Many of these efforts are directed at constitutional amendments that would overturn Citizens United or at campaign finance reform. In Seattle, a new group named Honest Elections Seattle has a different solution: give every city voter four “Democracy Vouchers” worth $25 each to donate to a candidate running in a Seattle election. This comes along with a number of election reforms, including reducing campaign donation limits, increasing transparency, and increasing the penalties for violating election laws.
Now, this understandably might seem a little bit far-fetched, because it’s a complete departure from traditional methods of public financing. Usually, public financing works by dedicating government funds, whether at the city, state, or federal level, for general election campaigns. Candidates then have access to a certain amount of this funding, so long as they abide by a spending limit. Private contributions are allowed in some aspects, but are supposed to be severely limited. At the national level, public funding started during the 1976 election and had played a role in every election since, until 2008, when a junior Senator from Illinois, arguing that the system had been broken, declined to accept public funds. Then-Senator Barack Obama claimed that his opponent, Senator John McCain, was gaming the system and had gotten around the spending limits. Since this was not how the system was intended to work, he decided not to work within the system.
Ultimately, both candidates declined public financing for the general election. That election cycle, the two campaigns spent nearly $1.1 billion. Two years later came the Citizens United decision, and the cap came off of the campaign-spending firehose. In the 2012 election cycle, both major candidates declined public funding and instead bowed to how the system was set-up: in order to simply have a chance to compete in the election they, and their primary opponents, had to take big donations from big companies. Together the two campaigns spent just under $1.2 billion. If this does not seem like a big increase from 2008, it’s because it does not include the almost half of a billion dollars spent by outside groups, most of it coming from SuperPACS, the new kind of committee that was created after Citizens Untied that can accept and spend unlimited amounts of money to campaign either for or against candidates. Thus, in the general election alone, almost $1.7 billion was spent and this does not even include the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the primaries.
Upon leaving the constitutional convention in 1787, after nearly four months of deliberation, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” “A republic,” replied Franklin, “if you can keep it.” (Check out Lawrence Lessig’s TED talk on this subject here) As the cost of campaigns steadily increases (including the news that Hillary Clinton’s campaign alone) could raise up to $2.5 billion this election cycle) and the presence of secret donors continues to pervade our politics, the question has to be asked: have we kept our republic? Too often these donors lobby for unsustainable industries such as Big Oil and Big Banks, not the interests of ordinary people. And while you might disagree with Honest Elections Seattle that democracy can be returned to the people in the form of a $100 voucher, it is clear that real action must be taken towards restoring democracy.