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Research Report

Political Opportunity: A New Framework for Democratic Reform

  • Mark Schmitt
Published: February 5, 2015

What should a useable framework for political reform achieve? First, it should rest on an accurate description of what’s wrong with the current political process. Second, it should lead to policy responses that are achievable, if not today in the next five or 10 years, and that would also be effective. It should serve the dual purpose of creating a plausible legal and constitutional justification for policy, and conveying a clear and accessible story about solutions for the public and policymakers. Finally, it should not create further conflicts with rights to free expression, but expand and enhance every person’s freedom to speak about issues and candidates.

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The key to such a framework is expanding political opportunity. Just as there are two ways to address purely economic inequality — by limiting gains at the top, or by expanding real economic opportunity for those who have not benefitted from growth — there are two similar approaches to the influence of radical inequality in the political process. The traditional strategy has been to put a ceiling on the electoral and political voice of the very wealthy, which, as shown above, has both practical and constitutional limits. The alternative is to create structures that ensure opportunity for people, organizations, ideas and visions that are currently shut out of the political process. The concept of political opportunity can provide not only a legal framework for a new generation of policy reforms, but a set of approaches that are more likely to be effective at balancing the voice of the well-off and breaking the cycle of cumulative inequality. “Opportunity” is an overused word in American political life, on both left and right, but political opportunity is a real, substantive concept with specific implications for effective policy. Political opportunity means:

  • Any candidate with a broad base of support, or who represents a viewpoint with broad support that wouldn’t be represented otherwise, should have a chance to be heard, in elections and other contexts, even without support from big-dollar donors.
  • Every citizen should have a reasonable opportunity to participate meaningfully, not just as a voter, but as a donor, a volunteer, or an organizer, or expressing his or her own views.
  • Individuals should be free to express their own political views, protected from coercion or direction by an employer or other institution.
  • The system is structured in a way that encourages organizing people, not just money, especially around issues affecting low- and moderate-income voters.

Political opportunity-based reforms will not only make the system fairer, giving voice to the voiceless and helping to offset the political influence of wealth. They also hold the promise of restoring fluidity and creativity to the political process, as candidates compete on new ideas and new axes of conflict and compromise emerge, breaking the stifling duality of the current system.

A familiar metaphor in thinking about political money is that big money “drowns out” the voices of those who do not have it. That might have been the right way to think about money in a world of three broadcast networks, but in the modern world, communication is so rich, varied, and complex that it’s difficult to drown out anyone. The real question is whether people and ideas can reach a threshold where they can be heard amid the noise. Somewhere after that threshold is reached, there are likely diminishing returns to additional political spending. In other words, efforts to limit spending at the top end are likely to have less of an impact on opportunity than reforms that help others be heard.

The first focus, then, should be the barriers to entry to politics, the things that make it difficult for candidates and new ideas to reach the threshold where they are fully heard in the debate. While it is true that, as shown above, elections are only one avenue by which political influence is allocated, they are nonetheless the main gateway for people and ideas.

The most obvious reform that flows from the framework of political opportunity would be an expansion of programs like New York City’s small-donor public financing system, which dramatically lowers the barriers to entry: It makes it possible for candidates who start with broad public support but not a base of money to run. And it gives ordinary citizens the opportunity to participate as donors. Results can be measured by the number of races that are competitive or have more than two viable candidates, as well as by the number of contributors.

Full public financing systems, such as Arizona’s or Connecticut’s, have a similar effect. They enable candidates to run who don’t start with money, and through their qualifying process — in Arizona, a participating candidate must raise a base of $10 contributions — enable ordinary citizens to participate in the money primary. Tax credits or vouchers for contributions, such as proposed by Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman and at work in Minnesota, would similarly empower all individuals, even those who do not have $175 to donate to a campaign (the threshold for a small contribution in New York City). But vouchers alone might not create more opportunity for candidates who are not already well known. A combination of matching funds and credits or vouchers, as proposed by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) in his Government By the People legislation, might be the best approach, giving candidates a way to get started and everyone, even those who cannot spare $50, a chance to contribute.

In his pathbreaking 2011 article, “The Participation Interest,” George Washington University’s Spencer Overton put forward a number of other proposals that would encourage citizen participation as donors and volunteers as well as voters, all of which would also expand opportunity. Small donor PACs, for example, which could accept contributions of no more than $250 but have more flexibility than other PACs, would encourage organizing and help causes that do not have wealthy supporters to be heard. There is some evidence that the disclosure requirement on contributions of more than $200 deters donors from making those modest contributions. Raising that threshold to, say, $500 might make first-time donors more comfortable without opening a massive loophole. [1]

Although reforms based on political opportunity rely on limits less than traditional approaches, limits on the size of individual contributions remain essential. They serve the established purpose of preventing corruption through the influence of very large donors, but also ensure that public financing systems are not overwhelmed by massive private spending by nonparticipating candidates, which would deter participation by others. But robust, modern public financing systems can also make limits more effective, by reducing the incentive to evade contribution limits through quasi-independent expenditures, super PACs, or any of the other channels that will inevitably remain open. In New York City, for example, while there was concern about outside spending in the 2013 elections, it nonetheless represented a small fraction of the total spent, and there is no indication that any of the outside groups were actually affiliated with candidates, using them to work outside the system. The same cannot be said at the federal level, where members of Congress have their own super PACs, or in most states without small-donor public financing.

Not all efforts to lower the barriers to entry into politics will involve changing the rules. Technology has already dramatically changed the relationship between candidates and small donors. On the Democratic side, for example, ActBlue has made it possible for potential donors to identify candidates all across the country who they might support (often based on recommendations from friends or bloggers), and along with older projects such as EMILY’s List, these tools have given candidates a way to raise their first money even if they do not have a wealthy base of supporters.

More recently, products such as NationBuilder came onto the scene, offering candidates from any party or none — as well as small organizations of all kinds — a basic suite of tools necessary to start a campaign, including the capacity to build and manage lists, launch a web site, send mass emails, coordinate volunteers, accept credit card donations and — of real value — access a reliable voter file. NationBuilder’s costs range from $19 to $999 a month, but previously most campaigns had to buy these services separately and put them together from scratch, at much higher cost. It is, in effect, a turnkey startup campaign. Similarly, Run ­­for America, a new organization intended to encourage young people to run for Congress, is structured as a B Corporation — that is, a company that’s not a non-profit but is intended to serve a public purpose — that would provide its candidates with basic campaign services at the lowest possible cost.

The declining effectiveness of broadcast television advertising, and the shift to targeted online communication, might also reduce the barriers to entry. Most candidates beyond the local level spend a large percentage of whatever money they have on television, because that’s how it’s always been done, and because political consultants have a vested interest in advertising commissions. But political scientist David Karpf predicts “a slow shift away from television among campaigns that is going to continue.” The combination of smart public-financing systems, technology that lowers the barriers to entry, and new ways to communicate with voters at lower cost could dramatically transform the landscape of money in politics, reducing the incentives for candidates to create super PACs or enlist outside spending.

Nor would all of the steps that fall under the framework of political opportunity involve raising money or lowering costs. Changes to voting structures, such as instant-runoff voting or ranked-choice voting, can give candidates who start with little chance to win an opportunity to influence politics anyway, as other candidates compete for the second-choice votes of their supporters. These systems can reward organizing over money and discourage campaigns based on pure negative attacks. Innovations such as ranked-choice voting can both reduce the influence of money and the pressure to raise it, and can be coupled to systems like small-donor matching funds to boost the effectiveness of each.[2]

Finally, the dominance of money in shaping the debate outside of elections, such as through think-tank funding, paid research, lobbying and grassroots lobbying, can be offset by restoring some of the infrastructure of independent, trusted resources. Yale Law School professor Heather Gerken has proposed treating lobbying in much the same way that the political-opportunity approach would treat campaign finance: public funding of experts to ensure that lawmakers have access to sound and balanced information from independent sources, without trying to block anyone else’s right to lobby. The elimination of independent sources of information, such as the congressional Office of Technology Assessment in the mid-1990s, is widely thought to have increased the influence of industry lobbyists. Restoring those institutions, in a newer and more adaptable form would help bring new ideas and information to the legislative process.

We should always be wary of promising more than any procedural reform, or combination of public and private reforms, can achieve. Nothing will be “the salvation” of American politics. Progressives who hope that fixing money in politics will lead to a new era of liberal consensus will be as disappointed as conservatives, or centrists. The country is deeply divided and our political structures awkwardly designed for such deep divisions. But it’s all made worse by profound economic inequality that deepens and reinforces political inequality. To disrupt this closed and stagnant system, an approach based on a vision of political opportunity can map the way to reforms that will be legally and constitutionally sound, and bring in new voices, new perspectives and new ideas.

[1] Spencer Overton, “The Participation Interest,” Georgetown Law Journal 1259–1310, 2012. Another important breakthrough on this set of ideas was put forward by Michael Malbin, Thomas Mann, Norman Ornstein and Anthony Corrado in “Reform in the Age of Networked Campaigns,” published in 2010. Both documents were influenced by the revolution in small donor engagement generated by President Obama’s 2008 campaign.

[2] In Minneapolis in 2013, ranked-choice voting brought 35 candidates into the race, and the ultimate winner, Betsy Hodges, was a community activist who was widely outspent.

A New Framework for Democratic Reform