Mo’ Money, Less Democracy: Washington D.C.’s Quest for Fair Elections

• Apr 16, 2018

Evan Tucker, William & Mary Election Law Society

“[T]he notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was clear when queried about Citizens United: large spending in elections by a few eviscerates the essence of democracy. Government in America is “by the People, for the People;” it is not “by the few, for the few.”

At the seat of the United States government, District Councilmember David Grosso introduced the “Fair Elections Act of 2017.” Councilmember Grosso aims to “reform campaign financing and to provide for publicly funded political campaigns.” Campaign donations are necessary in electoral politics, for modern-day campaigns are incredibly expensive. For Grosso, though, democracy should not be sold to the highest bidder; that is to say, the largest donor having their preferred candidate elected and in turn having that candidate only responsive to the donor. By introducing his bill, he seeks to establish a balance by “establishing a robust public financing program.”

The Fair Elections Act would “establish a voluntary, limited public matching-funds program for qualified candidates running for elected office in the District.” For every $1 contributed to a candidate who agreed to only accept small-dollar donations, the program would contribute $5. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law endorses the legislation as they believe it will produce three important results: empowers ordinary citizens, eliminates barriers for candidates, and encourages broad public participation in politics.

For those candidates that participate in the program, the incentive is now for candidates to go into the community and campaign door to door. To that end, the Act returns power to the everyday citizen by making their contributions 500% more effective. For example, a $50 donations is matched with $250 making the total contribution $300. If people feel as though they may affect the election with their contribution, they are more likely to pay attention and actively participate in the process. A candidate in Richmond, California, which has a similar system, stated that “[w]hen you take money from the public, you are beholden to the public only, and not any other corporate interest. That has really made a difference and helped the voters come to a place where they can say that they trust me.” The Fair Elections Act will return the attention of the candidates to the everyday citizen and not the large campaign donor.

Typically, candidates that lack access to a wealthy donor are disadvantaged to the extent that their lack of access forecloses their ability to effectively run. The Fair Elections Act would act as a catalyst for candidates that typically only would be able to watch from the sidelines. Now individuals of all socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds have access to spots on the ballot. Assuming candidates participate, all the candidates start from the same place, and their success is determined by effective campaigning of the People. American democracy is predicated on the idea that the government is of the People, for the People. The Fair Elections Act will enable citizens of the District to encourage their fellow citizens that look, sound, and think like them to participate in elections.

Democracy thrives when all of its members actively participate. The Fair Elections Act will encourage participation in politics by leveling the playing field: the everyday citizen now has as much of a say as the big spenders. Now that everyone starts on a level playing field, people who are typically put off by politics because of cynicism now have reason to believe they may affect the outcome of the election. Beyond just contributing or voting in the elections, People may be more encouraged to participate in all parts of the electoral process because the election now has substantive meaning for every person. Now, door-to-door greetings and town halls have more effect on candidates because the people making the important contributions are meeting face to face with the candidates and asking the tough questions.

The Fair Elections Act of 2017 is not without criticism, however. The ACLU believes that one current provision could use clarity. Section 10(c) allows for “contributions from a “People PAC,” which is a ‘political committee that only accepts contributions from individuals that do not exceed $250 per individual per calendar year.’” For the purpose of “People PACs,” labor or other membership organizations are considered individuals for the purposes of donating to a “People PAC.” The ACLU believes that allowing labor unions and other membership organizations to donate to candidates through their “People PACs” undermines the intention of the law and may even subject the law to legal challenge. The problem there being the adverse treatment of corporations and partnerships (i.e. not considering them as individuals vis-à-vis “People PAC” contributions). To make the bill most effective, the ACLU argues, would be to remove completely section 10(c). The result would be a bill that protects the integrity of the system it seeks to implement.

American democracy stands tall against the notion of a government by the few, for the few. The Fair Elections Act would remove large campaign donations by a wealthy few and incentivize candidates to seek the approval of the electorate. Any measure that seeks to strengthen our democracy should be embraced and Congress, through its congressional review process, should approve the Fair Elections Act.

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You can read the full article by Evan Tucker here

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