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How to Counter Big Money in Politics

Amplifying small donations combats the influence of megadonors.

Published: April 17, 2023

The influence of wealthy campaign donors has been growing ever since the Supreme Court’s infamous ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited amounts in our elections. Chisun Lee, director of the Brennan Center’s Elections and Government Program, explains strategies to create a more democratically representative system.

What negative impacts are megadonors having on our democracy?

Just over a decade after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision effectively deregulated money in politics, the antidemocratic effects of unlimited big money have become painfully clear. The increasing influence of megadonors not only thwarts policy-making to serve the public interest on critical issues like climate change but has also recently worked to undermine the machinery of democracy itself.

How did the imbalance in contributions affect the 2022 midterms?

In the 2022 midterms, small donors to congressional campaigns contributed at record levels. But funds from large donors dwarfed those numbers. This was not the case in 2010, the year of Citizens United. Back then, small donors significantly outspent the 100 biggest donors. But in 2022, the 100 biggest donors gave 60 percent more than all the millions of small donors combined. And just a handful of billionaires generated a whopping 15 percent of all federal election funding.

Megadonors also sponsored election denial candidates in the midterms, in some cases putting them on the political map. Billionaire Peter Thiel spent tens of millions boosting the Senate campaigns of election deniers J. D. Vance and Blake Masters, both his former business associates. Just seven sources gave $71 million in support of candidates who cast doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential election. The same sources also spent at least $64 million on efforts to overturn the 2020 election or manipulate election processes for the 2022 races.

What can be done about this?

Public financing of campaigns, which the Brennan Center has championed through policy design and advocacy for decades, is the most powerful reform available to counter the outsize influence of megadonors. Small donor public financing incentivizes candidates to seek support from everyday citizens, not just a few big donors. When designed well, the policy enables participating candidates to rely principally on constituent support and still raise what they need to compete in the super PAC era. It also helps reduce financial barriers to women, people of color, and other historically disadvantaged groups who seek representation in elected office.

Existing public financing programs show higher levels of participation among small donors — and among more socioeconomically diverse communities — than under traditional campaign finance. Even after Citizens United, public financing is a constitutionally valid policy.

Lawmakers also need to close loopholes that allow untraceable “dark money” to proliferate and huge donors to coordinate their spending with candidates. Measures to require transparency and deter corruptive coordination not only remain constitutional after Citizens United but are features the Court assumed would keep unlimited spending from undermining democracy. The missing ingredient is the political will to strengthen these measures. We continue to advocate for these reforms at the federal and state levels.

What reforms did we see adopted last year?

Following years of advocacy that we helped lead, New York State’s groundbreaking small donor public financing program launched in November 2022. The program is the strongest legislative response in the nation to Citizens United. It will pave the way for New Yorkers to push back against the influence of big money and provide candidates who choose to participate a means to raise competitive sums based on community support. We hope the program will serve as a model for other states and the federal government.

Also in 2022, voters in Oakland, California, and Portland, Maine, approved measures to establish public financing programs. These cities join at least 15 states and 21 municipalities across the country with public financing programs.

Existing programs continue to produce striking results. They boost candidates’ community-based support and enable them to win even in the face of super PAC spending, help individuals from historically disadvantaged groups to compete, and bring new and more diverse donors into the political process.

What’s next for small donor public financing?

Momentum is growing. In addition to New York’s new program, the first cycle of Denver’s program is underway. More public financing programs will soon launch in Baltimore County and Prince George’s County in Maryland.

This growing demand is part of Americans’ broader desire to fix a campaign finance status quo that undermines their voices and their votes. In 2022 the otherwise closely divided electorate in Arizona voted by more than 70 percent to approve a ballot measure to bring greater transparency to election spending.

Should these policies continue to succeed where they have been enacted, there is every reason to expect more localities and states to adopt them.