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Cities and States Leading Fight Against Big Money

Voters at opposite ends of the country took a strong step toward reclaiming democracy for ordinary Americans.

  • Benjamin T. Brickner
November 4, 2015

Cross-posted on the Huffington Post

Last night, voters at opposite ends of the country took a strong step toward reclaiming democracy for ordinary Americans.

Mainers decisively approved an initiative to protect its first-in-the-nation Clean Elections law from the tsunami of big money triggered by Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United. Meanwhile, voters in Seattle – by a surprisingly large 20-point margin – created first-of-their-kind “democracy vouchers” that voters can use to support the candidates of their choice. These very different initiatives have a common purpose – allowing people who can’t afford large political contributions to have a real voice in our elections.

Their success is good news for Maine and Seattle. It’s even better news for the country. And it comes not a moment too soon.

Americans are increasingly fed up with the stranglehold of big money on our politics. A recent poll found that 85 percent of Americans – including more than 80 percent of both Republicans and Democrats – believe the campaign finance system needs fundamental changes. Nearly as many are also deeply cynical about the possibility of those changes happening in the near future.

Maine and Seattle prove that solutions are possible – and that there’s more than one tool in the campaign finance repair kit.

Maine’s Clean Elections program allows candidates to run for office without relying on big money from special interests. This has encouraged more diverse candidates to run, kept campaign costs under control, and enabled candidates to spend less time fundraising and more time with voters. “Honest Elections Seattle” will provide each registered voter with four $25 vouchers to contribute to the candidates of his or her choice. This will amplify the voices of those who otherwise cannot afford to participate in a post-Citizens United world dominated by wealthy donors, corporations and super PACs.

These efforts are a reminder that many of the most important initiatives to fix our broken campaign finance system are happening on the state and local level.

At the federal level, the prospects for improvement remain dim. For the moment, we are stuck with a Supreme Court convinced that unlimited independent spending cannot corrupt, and that big donor influence will not undermine faith in democracy, despite evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, a dysfunctional Congress and feckless Federal Election Commission routinely fail to uphold what campaign finance laws we have left.

As a result, the 2016 election is forecast to be the most expensive ever. Only a tiny fraction of Americans is contributing the vast majority of this money. And an increasing amount of campaign spending is now done in secret.

To be sure, many of the hurdles to federal reform also exist in states and cities around the country. It will take a change on the Supreme Court (or a federal constitutional amendment) to fix the damaging effects of Citizens United at all levels. But last night’s victories exemplify what Justice Louis Brandeis described as a “happy incident” of our federal system. Any courageous state or city may become a “laboratory” of democracy, demonstrating to the nation that there are solutions to difficult problems, and inspiring others to take similar action.

Americans are rightfully concerned about the flood of big – and often secret – money into our elections. Too often that money warps public policy to reflect the concerns of those who can afford to purchase special access and influence in government, rather than the average voters elected officials are meant to represent. Maine and Seattle’s successes are promising signs that voters across the country can find creative solutions to empower candidates and voters alike.

Until the Supreme Court overturns Citizens United, Congress resumes governing, and the FEC breaks its deadlock, our best hope for effective campaign finance reform rests with innovative states and cities like Maine and Seattle.

(Photo: Thinkstock)