Though the 2016 election is more than 17 months away, it already seems like we’re seeing headlines every day about the eye-popping sums of money a tiny handful of mega-donors are dumping into campaign war chests. These days, Super PACs can take unlimited sums of money from wealthy donors and special interests, so long as they maintain a veil of independence from the candidates they support.
Instead of an opportunity to learn a candidate’s vision, credentials and capabilities, elections have become a scramble to attract the biggest checks from mega-donors. These big-money donors then get to decide which candidates are viable, what issues they’ll debate and potentially who wins – long before even polls open.
But enough about the problem. Poll after poll has shown that Americans get it: Their voices are being drowned out by those who can afford to spend millions. Luckily, there are some possible solutions gaining traction on Capitol Hill. Bills in the Senate and House would give candidates a way to fund campaigns by appealing to the people they’re seeking to represent instead of spending months searching for a few big checks.
The Fair Elections Now Act in the Senate and the Government by the People Act in the House would enable more Americans to participate in elections by establishing a $25 refundable tax credit for small donations. Limited public funds would also match small contributions of less than $150 at a rate of 6-to-1 for candidates who agree to turn down big money, amplifying the voices of small donors. In this system, grassroots candidates relying on small donors can compete with big money candidates. Choosing to go to a barbecue in the district over a top-dollar fundraiser in Washington would no longer seem foolhardy or naive.
The track record of small-donor empowerment programs is impressive. Under a similar program established in New York City in 2013, participating City Council candidates earned 61 percent of their contributions from small donations and matching funds. That year, 92 percent of candidates running in the primary participated in the program.
The potential of small-donor empowerment programs is one reason other states and localities have already adopted them, such as Montgomery County, Maryland. In 2008, Chapel Hill became the first municipality in North Carolina to adopt a campaign public-financing program before the General Assembly ended the program in 2012.
An analysis of competitive House races in the 2014 midterms by NCPIRG and Demos confirmed that a program like this could fundamentally change the balance of power in congressional elections. The study found the top two vote-getters in the 25 most competitive districts earned more than 86 percent of their contributions from donors giving large contributions. Meanwhile, the analysis looked at grassroots-backed candidates of both parties and found that a small-donor match would have substantially decreased, or even flipped, the money advantage in their races.
We are proud to endorse the Fair Elections Now Act and urge the rest of the North Carolina congressional delegation and elected officials at all levels of government across the country to join us. It’s not enough to condemn the outsized influence of big money in our elections. We need to demonstrate support for concrete solutions that will reclaim our democracy for the people.
Katherine Kehoe is a campaign organizer for the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group