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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)