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Minimizing Special-Interest Power by Maximizing Participation

Fighting back against restrictive voting-rights laws and empowering small donors can help reclaim elections.

January 5, 2012

Published in The American Prospect.

This is a dark time for those who worry about big money’s outsized role in American politics. Radical Supreme Court rulings, a comatose Federal Elections Commission, and ever more shameless political operatives have obliterated the campaign-law edifice that stood shakily for four decades. The 2012 race will be dominated by secret funds, unlimited special-interest gifts, and massive independent expenditures. Expect corruption not seen since Watergate.

Will all this stir a backlash? Perhaps. I am more skeptical than many that the current mood of disquiet will translate into a reform moment. What can we do to tip toward positive change?

Yes, we need to organize—lobby better in D.C., rabble rouse better in the countryside. And assuredly we must mount a long-term legal drive to overturn Citizens United. But these things are not enough. Let’s face it: Campaign-finance reformers have not engaged in serious rethinking in decades. We need a revitalization of policy goals as well. A compelling reform agenda is critical to persuading cynical citizens that something can actually change the status quo.

The next generation of reforms must build on the hopeful trends of recent years. The small-donor revolution most evident in the 2008 Obama campaign is real, if incomplete. Social media have begun to transform campaigning while lessening costs. A new democracy movement, I believe, should pursue two key reforms that share a premise of maximizing participation.

First, we must finally and fully embrace a model of public funding focused on boosting the power of small donors. For example, New York City’s system provides multiple matching funds for small contributions. A contribution of $100 becomes $700 (real money, even in Tribeca). Candidates fuse their fundraising and organizing strategies.

Imagine the impact of such a small-donor match on a presidential campaign, especially given the rise of Internet fundraising. We should explore other new ways to augment small-donor giving—for example, refundable tax credits for small gifts. These plans could work without the limits on spending that have proved constitutionally controversial and hard to enforce.

Such an approach does not end all private fundraising. (Indeed, it recognizes that some giving is a token of enthusiasm by real live voters.) It does not purport to stop spending by wealthy candidates or independent groups. It does, however, create an alternative platform on which to build a different kind of politics without addiction to special-interest funding.

The second key pro-participation reform is to ensure that every eligible citizen can vote. This year, state legislatures across the country abruptly enacted harsh new laws restricting voting rights. The Brennan Center, in our authoritative study, concluded that at least five million eligible citizens could find it much harder to vote in 2012. That’s more than the popular-vote margin in two of the last three presidential elections. Hardest hit: minority, poor, young, and elderly voters.

Voting-rights groups are pushing back and will succeed in blunting or blocking some of these measures, but most will stay in place. Dispiriting defensive fights cannot be our entire future. To quote Winston Churchill, “Wars are not won by evacuations.” We have proposed the Voter Registration Modernization plan, which moves toward universal registration. If the government assured that all eligible citizens were automatically registered, as Canada and Britain do, that shift would add 65 million voters to the rolls, permanently. It costs less and curbs the potential for fraud, too. Frustratingly, the Democrats did nothing to advance this when they had control of both congressional chambers and the White House. Fortunately, 17 states over the past few years moved to implement major parts of the plan anyway, often without partisan rancor.

We need to fight for both these things—small-donor public funding, voter-registration modernization—together. They offer a vista of a participatory democracy where the voices of ordinary citizens are most influential. Linking the issues offers a chance to break through the walls that often divide activists who focus on one or the other topic. I have sat through far too many earnest conclaves where campaign-finance reformers puzzle over how to bring racial and ethnic diversity to their coalition. Meanwhile, an energized, passionate, and increasingly angry movement—with deep roots in communities and in our history—is mobilizing to protect the right to vote.

As we design the next wave of reform, let’s heed the words of the great progressive New York governor Al Smith, who declared, “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.”