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What to do about big money in politics

Written by Wendell Potter

What can be done to reduce the outsized influence of special interests and a handful of billionaires on our political system? My new book with Nick Penniman, Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Democracy and What We Can Do About It, outlines several legislative proposals that would go a long way toward ensuring that average Americans can once again exercise their right of self government.

While it’s true that reversing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision will likely take years, there are actions that our lawmakers—the people who work for us—can take to restore our democracy. Yes, the Citizens United decision has enabled the rich and powerful to have greater influence than ever before over public policy and our political system. There are groups that are working for a Constitutional amendment to overturn that decision (it could also be overturned when the composition of the Court changes in the coming months or years). There are also many other things that our elected officials—at municipal, state and federal levels—can and must do now.

So, what are the legislative fixes that we can accomplish right now, regardless of the Supreme Court? Broadly speaking, they fall into four categories that embody the principles of a high-functioning democracy: (1) everyone participates, (2) everyone knows, (3) everyone plays by the same commonsense rules, and (4) everyone is held accountable.

1. Everyone Participates: Citizen funding of elections: This is the “game changer” category. Unless we create better ways of financing politics in this country, we’re never going to be able to rebalance the power dynamic in Washington and the state capitals. There are several types of citizen funding programs, dozens of which are already in place at the state and local levels, including:

  • Clean elections, in which candidates receive a set amount of money to operate their campaigns;
  • Matching funds, in which a government fund matches every dollar raised from citizens, by some multiple, up to a certain amount;
  • Tax incentives, in which people get a tax credit or deduction for political contributions, up to a certain amount;
  • Vouchers, in which the government provides each citizen with a certificate for $50 or $100, which he or she can then contribute to a candidate or party; and
  • Hybrids, or some combination of the above approaches.

2. Everyone Knows: Transparency: The one thing we know is that darkness encourages bad behavior. That’s why it’s critical that voters know exactly where the money is coming from. And the information should be available online immediately, presented in an intuitive and easy-to-navigate format to give the public the true transparency people need to make informed decisions.

3. Everyone Plays by the Same Commonsense Rules: Reform lobbying: Beyond campaign financing and transparency lies a realm of ideas that is too often overlooked; ethics and lobbying reforms. Many of these involve changing the way lobbyists interact with politicians and government officials. One such fix: Let’s enact at the federal level what many states have in place—bans on campaign contributions from lobbyists.

4. Everybody is Held Accountable: Change the way the elections’ cop works: All the laws on the books are utterly irrelevant without a strong enforcement mechanism ensuring that everyone is held accountable to the laws. Our system of self-government relies, in part, on a citizen’s belief that someone is enforcing the rules of politics, keeping the game clean.  That someone is the Federal Election Commission, which, unfortunately, has been dysfunctional for years. We need to fix the FEC.

Nation on the Take provides much more information about these proposals as well as how average Americans can get involved in the fight to restore democracy. For an excerpt from the book, click here.

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2 Comments

  • How can we stop ALL campaign “contributions”? The right-wing who insists on suppressing voters, unlimited dark spending and all other measures of assuring that only the very rich have a voice are big on the “slippery-slope” concept and they should understand that ANY money in the system will corrode it and corrupt the people.

    Money is NOT speech and anyone should be able to say what they think but free speech does not include PAYING people to speak for you or getting PAID to speak someone else’s point of view. We will NEVER solve any problems permanently until we get ALL money out, otherwise they just resurface when some other idiot sees an opportunity to make a buck by screwing everyone else.

  • …we also need to eliminate gerrymandering, as well as regressive voter laws that many states have. A recent diary on Daily Kos from a former Wisconsin GOP official mentions that the conservative right there backed the state’s more restrictive voter registration law on the rounds that it would tip the scales on the favour of Republicans running for state office. Indeed it seems to have done just that in the 2014 Gubernatorial election (assisted by gerrymandering of state voting districts) as well as the recent election of an extremist conservative judge to the state’s Supreme Court. These registration laws which conservatives claim prevent voter fraud actually allow it on a much larger scale simply by making it harder for people from certain demographics to vote.

    Some states, like Oregon where I live, have gone to a vote by mail system. It has been shown to increase voter turnout dramatically while at the same time eliminating the chance for the situation that occurred in Arizona and other types of election fraud (such as rigging of electronic voting machines). Ballots along with voter information booklets are mailed out to voters several weeks in advance, and should one procrastinate on mailing his or hers in, the state sets up ballot drop off points during the days leading up to the election to ensure everyone can get their vote in.

    Campaign finance reform needs to go further than just overturning Citizen’s United, in that all candidates should receive a set equal amount of public money as well as free air time (the old “Equal Time” rule) and that is it. Funds from private or third party source should be banned and there needs to be absolute transparency into how a campaign is funded (other nations do this). No more outspending each other, no dark money from PACs of lobbying groups. Maybe this way candidates would actually focus on the real issues, when they’d have limited funds and airtime to do so, instead of “comparing size” and evading questions.

    On the Democratic side, superdelegates need to be done away with as they are a holdover from the “Reagan Democrat” days. As per the DNC chair, they are now being used as a means to squash any grass roots effort that might be seen as a threat to the status quo of the party. That defeats the entire ideal of a “democratic process” when party bigqwigs can nominate whomever they please even counter to the say of the voters.

    The Electoral College also needs to go, especially in these days of “instant information”. This may be the reason why there has been an explosion of younger voters in the Sanders camp as they do know how to do their research.

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