Written by Maeve McKaig
With midterm elections just days away, Americans across the political spectrum are doing all they can to shake an ingrained cynicism from the electorate. Despite America’s characterization as a champion of democracy, on average only half of its citizens actually show up on election day. Many voters feel as if their vote will not count. This depressing trend is the result (and perhaps ultimate goal) of a dangerously influential network of big campaign donors coming from America’s top tax bracket. In order to restore confidence in our democracy, it is imperative that we get big money out of politics and people back in.
The 2018 midterms are projected to cost a record-breaking $5 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the majority of which will come from fewer than 1% of Americans. Wealthy donors may make these political deals behind closed doors, but the American public sees their influence every time a member Congress goes to a Koch-sponsored summit instead of a town hall of their constituents; every time a Senator is too busy calling donors to meet with student activists; every time the candidate who raised the most money beats the candidate who knocked on the most doors. The lack of campaign finance regulation has created a system of government that is less accessible and less accountable to the majority of Americans.
A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in March 2018 concluded that campaign contributors are more likely than others to believe their elected officials will be responsive to their needs. The poll found that overall, only 37% of Americans said that they feel it is at least somewhat likely that their representative would help them with a problem if contacted. But the belief that one’s representative would help was highest (63%) among donors who had given more than $250 to a campaign or political group in the last year. This is precisely the opposite of what the framers of our Constitution envisioned. Your representatives should be campaigning for your vote, not your dollars.
Just look at where the candidates for New York’s 19th congressional district get their campaign funds. As of October 17, NY 19 has raised almost $12 million, which is the most out of every other New York district race. This is because NY 19 is one of the most contested races in the 2018 midterms, drawing lots of attention to Democrat Antonio Delgado’s bid against incumbent Republic John Faso. As of October 17 (the most recent FEC report available on Open Secrets.com, a nonpartisan site), Delgado has raised almost twice as much as Faso, approaching $8 million compared to Faso’s nearly $4 million. Most Congressional candidates get the majority of their campaign funds from two main sources: industries that make up their district’s economy and Washington-based interest groups. Most Democrats also receive funds from labor unions. If candidates receive more money from Washington-based groups, they may have conflicting loyalties regarding issues where their Washington donors conflict with the voters that elected them. According to Open Secrets, both Delgado and Faso have received about a third of their campaign funds of outside the state of New York (Delgado received about $2.5 million dollars, 35.3% of funds; Faso received about $675,000, 31.9% of funds). The top industries giving to each candidate are also revealing. Delgado has received the most money from Lawyers & Law Firms ($982,333), Democratic/Liberal ($855,078), Securities & Investment ($521,042), Retired ($483,090), and Education ($346,231, which includes just under $20,000 from Bard College). Faso has received the most money from Securities & Investment ($291,876), Leadership PACs ($241,036), Retired ($231,228), Real Estate ($186,639), and Insurance ($122,811).
The mountain of money in politics may seem insurmountable. But there are actions we can take to conquer it. This corrupt system is not the work of an isolated trend, but a systematic dismantling of campaign finance regulation and anti-corruption law. This is why attention must be focused on legislative reform. Many Cities, counties, and states across the country, including Suffolk County in New York and New York City, have instituted systems of public financing for elections, often called Voter-Owned Clean Elections or Fair Elections. After proving that they have support within the district, candidates run (and often win!) with public funds and small contributions, instead of taking millions of dollars from a handful of wealthy individuals and corporations.
Getting money out of politics is the key to making our democracy more accessible and effective. Ordinary citizens who are publicly funded can run on qualifications based on public service and not private funds. The result is more diverse candidates, more choice for voters, and more representation in our democracy. The whole electorate can have access to elected officials, not just deep-pocketed corporate lobbyists. Most importantly, when publicly funded officials reflect the ideal, needs, and stories of their constituents. The American people will regain trust in our democracy. Join Democracy Matters in fighting for reform!