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Fixing Campaign Finance Needs to Be at the Center of Democracy Reform

While the issue has often been pushed aside, campaign finance reform is critical to our democracy.

November 26, 2018

In the years following the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, fixing the way campaigns are funded was at the center of the discussion about reforming our democracy. But in recent years, as concerns about voter suppression and gerrymandering have rightly grown, accompanied by a cavalcade of ethical sleaze from the Trump administration, the issue has at times taken a backseat. 

In the wake of an election that highlighted the many shortcomings of our democracy across the board, from poor ballot design to the lack of up-to-date voting equipment, we may finally be getting serious about strengthening our system. And campaign finance reform needs to be prominent in the conversation. 

Voting problems in Georgia and Florida, the product of both intentional suppression and incompetence, again took most of the headlines for the 2018 midterms. But according to Open Secrets, this was also the most expensive midterm election in history. Senate and House candidates spent $2.1 billion. On top of that was $1.3 billion in outside spending, much of it on negative ads trashing candidates. When big money buys misleading political ads to sway voters, it doesn’t inspire faith in democracy.

Those of us who work on the structural issue of how to build a stronger democracy shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees. We still need to think hard about the way our democracy does and doesn’t work for average citizens — including how campaigns are funded.

Before Thanksgiving, I moderated a debate at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on amending the Constitution to address Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 ruling that laid the groundwork for the Roberts Court’s gutting of campaign finance laws decades later. At the event, which included former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith and First Amendment luminary Floyd Abrams, as well as Elizabeth Doty of Leadership Momentum and Jeff Clement of America Promise, the audience both in the hall and online voted on a proposal to amend the Constitution to allow for limits on campaign expenditures — something the Supreme Court has said is currently prohibited. 

The vote was overwhelmingly in favor. Of course, this wasn’t exactly a scientific survey. But polling tells a similar story. As a general matter, American voters hate the impact of money on American elections either by a majority or a super majority. And there has been progress made on the effort to amend. So far 19 states and 792 localities have passed resolutions calling for such an amendment.

The Constitution is, by design, very difficult to change. So despite the enormous support for the idea of an amendment on campaign finance, we also need to be thinking about other ways to reduce the influence of big money in politics. 

Thankfully, there are proven solutions. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who looks likely to be speaker come January, confirmed Sunday that democracy reform must be the first order of business for the new Congress and that a public financing system combining small donor incentives and matching support — which can help give ordinary Americans a much louder voice in funding campaigns — must be part of it. “Wealthy special interests shouldn’t be able to buy more influence than the workers, consumers, and families who should be our priority in Washington,” wrote Pelosi, along with Rep. John Sarbanes, the Democratic point person on democracy issues, in the Washington Post

New York City’s public financing system has proven so successful that voters this month backed an expansion of it. There’s a new push for small-donor public financing in New York state, too. 

When Americans vote, they should have confidence that the wealthy won’t tip an election through outsized influence. As I said to the audience in Philadelphia, “wealth is not synonymous with wisdom.” We can still have a democracy that recognizes this and works more efficiently for all American voters. But we have to build it, even among the chaos of this current political moment. Because in 2020 we’ll all need a democracy we can have faith in. 

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