Buying Elections, Stealing Democracy

Around
election time, many Americans are bombarded with waves of TV ads telling us whom we should vote for. Amazingly, we get all of this advice on whom to elect for
free—or at least that’s what you might think. Common sense informs us
that the corporations, unions and wealthy individuals who finance large portions of American political campaigns are not doing it out of the
goodness of their hearts. They’re doing it because having a huge say in who
controls the government is enormously profitable for them. 

While
paying for campaigns may cost these wealthy special interests money, it costs
us something much greater.

Our
democracy is based on the principle that we should all have an equal say in
who will represent us in government. However, allowing the wealthiest percent
of society to use their vast fortunes on elections gives them a
disproportionate amount of influence. Many of our nation’s most important
elections are decided by only a small fragment of the vote. While there is very
little that most of us could do to tip the scales one way or the other, a
wealthy corporation, union or individual can spend millions of dollars on
political ads in the crucial days before the election.

Spending money cannot
directly buy votes, but the fact that 94 percent of candidates who spent the
most in the recent House elections won illustrates the impact of money on results. Furthermore, the Center for Responsive Politics estimates that in the
recent midterm election neither party raised more than 10 percent of their campaign
contributions from small donors (donors giving $200 or less).

It
is common knowledge that money is the lifeblood of modern campaigns. How much
influence will we have over our own elected representatives when they’re
getting 90 percent of their funds from big-money donors? Although
it is too early to tell how wealthy special interests will exert their
influence on the 114th Congress, past trends indicate that the
American people are going to pay a steep price for big money in politics. 

In
the 2014 midterms, the Finance/Insurance/Real Estate sector spent more
money than any other industry. Previously, the large contributions from that sector have
bought them enormous influence over our elected representatives. For example, the
congressional representatives who co-sponsored a bill to deregulate banking received 16 times as much money from Citigroup than other members of
Congress. Similarly, Americans paid a huge price for Wall Street’s influence on
Congress when, in 2008, corporate greed and a lack of regulations caused a
massive recession, resulting in home values plummeting by $1.2 billion and 500,000
fewer jobs being created.

Even
as our economy slowly recovers, Americans are still paying a price for the
influence of big money in elections. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying
group that represents business interests and opposes ending offshore tax
havens, spent over $35 million in campaign ads for the 2014 election cycle,
the seventh-most of any super PAC. According to the Wall Street Journal, these offshore tax havens cost every American
$1,200 per year and every small business $4,000 per year, totaling a
whopping $20 billion over the next decade.

Although
the situation seems hopeless, there are a few proposals that could do a lot of
good. For example, several states have already passed motions calling for a
constitutional amendment to explicitly prevent corporations from spending unlimited
funds in elections. Other ideas involve making smaller changes, such as public
financing of elections to counteract the influence of wealthy special
interests.

One such proposal that I have personally worked on is known as H.R.
20, or the Government by the People Act. Under H.R. 20, the government would
match contributions to candidates of $150 or less at a rate of 6:1. This means
that a $100 contribution would be matched by an additional $600 from the
government, significantly increasing the power of small donors and forcing
politicians to be more accountable to everyday Americans.

While
proposals like H.R. 20 will cost money to fund, this price pales in comparison
to the one that we pay when we allow wealthy special interests to buy our
elections. That price is far too high. It is time that we take action to put
government back in the hands of the people. 

Adam Revello PO ’17 is an organizing fellow for California Common Cause and is majoring in politics.

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