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U.S. Politics Are Rigged. It's Time For a Small-Donor Revolution

Solutions to influence-money problems are possible and can work.
Image: The U.S. Capitol, seen in a reflection, in the morning in Washington.
Time for a different kind of revolution. Al Drago / The New York Times via Redux Pictures

The 2018 midterm elections have already begun, following the pattern set by the 2016 presidential race — which was the greatest onslaught of big money in U.S political history. Now a new record looks likely to be set for the 2018 congressional races.

Super PACs raised $1.8 billion for the 2016 national election cycle and the top 100 donors alone gave some $1 billion to the PACs — or an average of $10 million per donor.

It didn’t stop on Election Day. As of late August, outside groups had already spent more than twice as much on 2018 races as during a similar period in the 2016 election cycle.

Today’s badly broken campaign finance system greatly benefits the wealthy few and the candidates they support. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans are on the outside looking in at Washington’s rigged system.

It’s time for a small donor revolution.

If tens of millions of ordinary Americans flood federal elections with small contributions they can dilute the power and impact of big money in U.S. politics. Candidates could run for office without being beholden to influence-seeking funders.

Major technological breakthroughs could revolutionize our campaign finance system, creating new ways for donors to give and for candidates to raise small donations throughout the election cycle. President Barack Obama demonstrated what new technologies can do: He raised more than $1 billion online for his two presidential campaigns. Senator Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump were both remarkably successful in raising small donations online in the 2016 presidential race.

Today’s badly broken campaign finance system greatly benefits the wealthy few.

We now need to move from ad hoc, individual success stories to a systemic approach that can give all candidates and donors the opportunity to participate successfully in online fundraising.

Voters, for example, could easily create social networks of like-minded donors. Drawing on their social media communities and networks, they could organize large numbers of small contributions for a specific candidate. They could use any device, from a smart phone to a desktop, to contribute on a secure platform.

First-time candidates could also use new technologies to explore whether they would be able to mount financially viable campaigns for public office.

Notably, either approach can be accomplished through the private sector, requiring essentially no action by Congress. Changes in technology — unlike congressional legislation — move at warp speed.

Of course, the Internet and social media are not without their dangers for our elections, as continuing revelations about Russian interests using Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter to disrupt the 2016 presidential election have shown.

But change does not occur without risk — and change is essential, as shown by a New York Times/CBS News poll that found an overwhelming 85 percent of respondents supported either fundamental changes or a complete overhaul of the way our campaigns are financed.

A small-donor revolution could also be achieved by providing public funds to match small contributions to federal candidates; Congress came close to enacting congressional public financing in the 1970s and again in the 1990s.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) recently introduced legislation that would provide federal candidates six-to-one in public matching funds for up to $200 of individual contributions. (The formula is modeled on New York City’s successful matching funds system.) That means a donor's $200 contribution would be worth $1,400 for a presidential or congressional candidate.

Given the polarized state of U.S. politics, enacting this kind of legislation would likely involve a major long-term effort. But members of Congress could ultimately come to see that the campaign finance system is so destructive to America’s democracy that the legislature must respond to the 85 percent of the public who want fundamental changes.

History shows that major scandals in Washington have triggered fundamental campaign finance reforms before.

The Watergate scandals during the 1972 presidential election, for example, revealed that big political donors used campaign contributions to obtain presidential decisions and buy ambassadorships. In response, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974, which established the presidential public financing system and $1,000 candidate contribution limits.

Major scandals in Washington have triggered fundamental campaign finance reforms before.

The “soft money” scandals of the 1990s involved unlimited contributions that donors laundered through political parties to benefit candidates and evade contribution restraints. In response, Congress banned the influence-buying, or “soft money,” contributions with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.

Influence-money scandals erupted again in the mid-2000s with disclosures about Jack Abramoff, a powerful lobbyist. Abramoff lavished gifts, expensive trips and political contributions on members of Congress to gain influence. In response, Congress set out new ethics and lobbying rules in the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.

These reforms have shown that solutions to influence-money problems are possible and can work. The 1974 presidential public financing system served the nation well for more than two decades. (Consider, President Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984 without holding a single fundraiser for his own campaign.)

When the costs of presidential campaigns skyrocketed in the 21st century, however, it made the old campaign-finance rules obsolete. Until then, virtually all presidential candidates participated in the system and could focus more on communicating to voters and less on chasing donors. But Congress never made changes in the system to take into account the exponential increases in election costs.

Then, the U.S. Supreme Court’s misguided 2010 Citizens United decision allowed corporations to make unlimited, direct expenditures to influence federal elections. That ruling set the stage for the explosion of Super PACs — outside groups that spend unlimited contributions in federal campaigns. This returned to our electoral system the huge contributions that the ban on “soft money” contributions to the parties had eliminated.

In the 2016 election, environmental advocate Tom Steyer contributed some $90 million to Super PACs to support Democratic candidates, while Sheldon and Miriam Adelson contributed some $78 million to Super PACs to support Republicans.

Polls have shown the American people overwhelmingly reject the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. But this is still the system we have today.

That is why a small donor revolution is essential. Whether through technological breakthroughs, legislation or both, a small donor revolution can successfully counter and combat the big-money campaign finance system that is corrupting and diminishing America’s democracy.

Fred Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works to strengthen U.S. democracy and empower citizens in the political process.