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The Astronomical Scale of Money in Politics

In the five years since the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Citizens United, it is clear that the scale of money in politics is out of reach for most Americans.

January 13, 2015

In the five years since the US Supreme Court issued its ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, it is clear that the scale of money in polit­ics is out of reach for most Amer­ic­ans.

I was reminded of this fact recently while speak­ing at the national conven­tion of the Asso­ci­ation of Amer­ican Law Schools (AALS) where former FEC Commis­sioner Brad­ley Smith argued that there isn’t a prob­lem of secret money in elec­tions because only 5 percent of the spend­ing in federal elec­tions comes from an untrace­able source.     

His math is correct in a narrow sense, but by disreg­ard­ing the numer­ator and denom­in­ator, it’s easy to lose sight of the true scale of dark money. Prof. Smith calcu­lated his 5 percent figure from the 2012 elec­tion cycle where approx­im­ately $300 million of the $6 billion in spend­ing was from anonym­ous sources.

One could also quibble that his numer­ator is arti­fi­cially low because it does­n’t include dark money spend­ing that isn’t repor­ted to the FEC or that a more inform­at­ive compar­ison is between inde­pend­ent spend­ing that is fully trans­par­ent and inde­pend­ent spend­ing that is dark. By that meas­ure inde­pend­ent spend­ing in 2012 was 31 percent dark, not 5 percent.

Either way we’re talk­ing about hundreds of millions of dollars. In the past three federal elec­tions since Citizens United there is well over half a billion ($605 million!) in dark money. That is anything, but negli­gible. (If this both­ers you as much as it does me, the FEC is taking public comments on dark money until Janu­ary 15.)

Another way of concep­tu­al­iz­ing the scale of money in Amer­ican polit­ics is think­ing about what $10,000 means to the aver­age Amer­ican compared to what it means to a politi­cian. Ten thou­sand dollars is less than a sixth of a maxed-out dona­tion to a candid­ate for New York governor. For super PACs $10,000 is a round­ing error, or the cost of a single plate of food at polit­ical fundraisers.

Mean­while back in the real world, the median income for Amer­ic­ans is $53,000. In other words, a $10,000 contri­bu­tion would cost a median income earner his or her entire salary for almost three months.

Aver­age Amer­ic­ans are not fund­ing our elec­tions. As Harvard Professor Larry Lessig explains in his widely shared Ted Talk, this YouTube of a talk he gave at Stet­son Law School, the major indi­vidu­als driv­ing polit­ical spend­ing are the 1 percent of the 1 percent. In 2014, USA Today repor­ted that a mere 42 indi­vidu­als accoun­ted for $200 million in Super PAC dona­tions.

The cost of elec­tions is simply out of reach for work-a-day Amer­ic­ans.

Two differ­ent ways to fund elec­tions allow for the aver­age Amer­ican to have more of a voice in polit­ics and are already work­ing in cities and states across the coun­try: low contri­bu­tion limits and public finan­cing.

In states like Montana with low contri­bu­tion limits, like $170 for legis­lat­ive candid­ates and $650 for gubernat­orial candid­ates, even the middle class worker can make a contri­bu­tion without getting drowned out by a billion­aire’s five or six figure check. Each Montanan has a similar chance to give a modest amount. 

Else­where cities and states provide public finan­cing to encour­age and amplify the voices of small donors. For example, in New York City, publicly financed candid­ates get a 6 to 1 match for contri­bu­tions of $175 or less. This means candid­ates have an incent­ive to reach out to small donors, and they do. In 2013, two thirds of contrib­ut­ors gave $175 or less in New York City’s last elec­tion.

Sadly our Supreme Court is not help­ing the little guy or gal. This fact became crys­tal clear five years ago in Citizens United when the Court decided that corpor­a­tions could spend an unlim­ited amount of money in federal elec­tions. In the inter­ven­ing years, the Court also held that parts of Arizon­a’s public finan­cing system were uncon­sti­tu­tional in the Bennett case and that aggreg­ate contri­bu­tion limits to federal candid­ates had to be scrapped in the McCutcheon case.

The Court is look­ing out for the 1 percent of the 1 percent. But don’t let the percent­ages mislead you. They are spend­ing millions — and too much of it is still undis­closed, which is why federal agen­cies like the FEC, SEC and IRS need to step up their game in bring­ing this spend­ing out of the shad­ows.

(Photo: Think­stock)

Ciara Torres-Spel­liscy is a Bren­nan Center Fellow, an Asso­ci­ate Professor of Law at Stet­son Univer­sity College of Law and the author of The Demo­cracy We Left Behind in Greece and McCutcheon, 89 NYU Law Review 112 (2014).

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.