The Election Reform Moment?

The Election Reform Moment?

The good news is that things have gotten so bad, almost everyone agrees we need to make big changes.


There is little in the way of good news on the campaign finance front. In 2012, campaigns for every office—from the presidency to the San Jose City Council—cost exponentially more than ever before. It is certainly true that right-wing billionaires like Sheldon Adelson blew fortunes on losing political bets, as did the US Chamber of Commerce and other groups that had hoped to buy elections with unlimited expenditures. But as Public Campaign’s Nick Nyhart notes, “billionaires lost, but big money won.” Republicans backed by Adelson and the Koch brothers got beat by Democratic campaigns and progressive interest groups that came close to—and sometimes matched—Republican and conservative spending. Even those who complain about the political arms race reject unilateral disarmament. The pay-to-play political process remains cloaked in “dark money” secrecy, as special interests develop new schemes to use and abuse it, and every indication is that the courts are determined to make things worse.

The situation is overwhelming—and that’s the good news. The days of imagining we can merely tinker around the edges of America’s historically dysfunctional system for funding political campaigns with private dollars are over. There is no small reform that will begin to adequately control what former Senator Russ Feingold identifies as “legalized bribery.” That understanding is what has made even the winners under the current system, led by President Obama, recognize that big changes are needed. 

Obama has responded with uncharacteristic aggressiveness to the Supreme Court’s 2010 obliteration of limits on corporate intervention in our elections. After calling out the Court in his  State of the Union address in 2010, he acknowledged in 2012 that “we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it).”

The president’s evolution toward an embrace of a constitutional remedy once considered radical mirrors a dawning recognition that the work of campaign finance reformers in America is no longer just about the simple “good government” project of old. Now it’s about building a movement that goes to the heart of the matter: the corporate control of elections and governance. Three years ago, after the Citizens United ruling came down, veteran reformer John Bonifaz co-founded the Free Speech for People movement, which seeks a twenty-eighth amendment to the Constitution to address it. “At that time, there were plenty of skeptics who thought an amendment movement would not have any staying power, could not be built, and that people around the country would not get engaged with pushing for what is an ambitious goal,” Bonifaz admits. “But I think what we’ve found over the past three years is, those skeptics have been quieted.”

Campaign-finance reform movements have been around for more than a century, in varying forms. They have always had popular support, but never before have they seen the level of specific and sustained engagement now on display. Eleven states have moved legislatively or at the polls to call for a constitutional amendment, with Colorado (an Obama state) and Montana (a Romney state) both voting on November 6, by roughly 75 to 25 percent margins, to urge their congressional delegations to propose and support an amendment that allows Congress and the states to limit campaign contributions and spending. 

On the same day, more than 150 communities across the country weighed voter-initiated ballot questions on the issue. Every single referendum won—and won big. In San Francisco, 80 percent of the voters backed a Common Cause–endorsed proposal to overturn Citizens United. But so did 65 percent of the voters in conservative Pueblo, Colorado; despite editorial opposition to the resolution by the local newspaper, voters told their congressional representatives not just to back an amendment that declares, “Money is not speech and, therefore, limiting political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech,” but also to recognize that “the inherent rights of mankind recognized under the United States Constitution belong to natural human beings only, and not to legally created entities, such as corporations.”

“In every single community where Americans have had the opportunity to call for a constitutional amendment to outlaw corporate personhood, they have seized it and voted yes overwhelmingly,” says Move to Amend activist Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap. “Americans are fed up with large corporations wielding undue influence over our elections and our legal system.”

This grassroots movement is real, and it crosses partisan, ideological and regional lines. “This is happening because the people want it to happen,” says Marge Baker of People for the American Way, one of a number of reform groups that organized dozens of “Money Out, Voters In” actions nationwide, held on or around the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to launch the 2013 round of local and state initiatives to encourage congress to take up at least one of the amendment proposals advanced by Senator Bernie Sanders, Congresswoman Donna Edwards, Congressman Jim McGovern and others. The movement has not yet reached critical mass, but if the number of states supporting an amendment of some sort doubles in 2013 (as the organizers with Public Citizen’s ambitious Democracy Is for People campaign suggest could happen), the prospects for meaningful reforms that do not require a constitutional amendment increase as well. And many different proposals have been advanced, by groups and by elected leaders like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards. As President Obama himself pointed out, “Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight on the Super PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

Everyone knows that a constitutional amendment faces daunting barriers: in a time of deep partisan and ideological divisions, it’s hard to imagine getting the House and Senate to approve anything by a two-thirds super-majority, let alone getting three-quarters of the states to embrace such a fundamental change. But if we have learned anything from the conservative movement for a balanced-budget amendment or a right-to-life amendment, or from progressive campaigning on behalf of an equal-rights amendment, it is that these kinds of large-scale organizing efforts also give impetus to presidents, governors, legislators and regulators to act on more modest proposals. In turn, those actions that yield immediate results are essential to building momentum to propel the longer-term push for an amendment. “If we are to build a movement big enough to win a constitutional amendment, we are going to need near-term democracy victories that make a difference in people’s lives to sustain and expand that movement,” Public Campaign’s Nyhart says. 

* * *

Some of those victories could come quickly—if President Obama is willing to spend some political capital. Public Citizen has campaigned for over a year to get him to sign an executive order requiring government contractors to reveal their political spending; the administration reportedly drafted such an order, then “all but abandoned” it during a 2012 campaign season that saw Obama and his supporters raise and spend $1.1 billion, compared with $1.2 billion by Mitt Romney and his backers. As the president begins his second term, reform advocates are calling on him to press regulatory agencies like the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to crack down on corporate campaign abuses. Noting a new Free Press study, “Left in the Dark: Local Media Coverage in the Age of Big-Money Politics,” which reveals how broadcast and cable outlets make a fortune from campaign commercials but rarely inform voters about who pays for them, former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who now works with Free Press and Common Cause to advance reforms, is urging the agency to aggressively enforce Section 317 of the Telecommunications Act. That section requires the on-air identification of the sponsors of political ads in a manner that will “fully and fairly disclose the true identity of the person or persons, or corporation, committee, association…or other entity.”

In the new Congress, the House Democratic Caucus’s DARE (Disclose, Amend, Reform and Empower) task force, under the leadership of Representative John Larson of Connecticut, is renewing the push for the sweeping reforms outlined in the Fair Elections Now Act. The bill has attracted a measure of bipartisan support, though it faces a hard time in the Republican-dominated House. But building support for this plan to develop public financing for campaigns shows what could be done if Congress chose to regulate the “money power” that Teddy Roosevelt, Robert M. La Follette and Progressive reformers took on a century ago. Another prime congressional vehicle will be the Disclose Act, which reads like the old bipartisan proposals for basic transparency from donors but is now officially opposed by the Republican Party in its platform. The League of Women Voters and other good-government groups will engage in the frustrating work of trying to get responsible Republicans in Congress to back even this minor reform. Ultimately, however, it is far more likely that reform breakthroughs on the disclosure front—ones that even the present Supreme Court might accept—will come from the states.

At the state level, Public Campaign, Common Cause, and a network of local and regional groups have secured some key allies for the fights of 2013. New groups such as the CREDO Super PAC and Friends of Democracy are going into state election fights with an eye toward exposing and challenging big-money influence on elections, as well as the candidates who bow to that influence. And the new Democracy Initiative, which has brought together unions like the Communications Workers of America, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, and civil rights groups like the NAACP, is focusing financial resources and people power on reform fights in targeted states like North Carolina, where it is challenging the grip on elections and policy-making that right-wing millionaire Art Pope has purchased with his lavish spending in recent years. The genius of the Democracy Initiative is that it will systematically make the linkages between big-money corruption in politics and everything from fracking to the privatization of prisons to the assault on labor rights. Those pieces could also come together in New York State, where a movement is building around a public financing plan.

States like Vermont, where progressives control the executive and legislative branches, and Montana, which elected a reform governor, Democrat Steve Bullock, in November, will see serious work on these issues. Unfortunately, Bullock, a former attorney general, has already been shot down by the Supreme Court in his effort to defend state-based regulation of corporate campaign money. 

That brings the discussion back to a Supreme Court majority that has moved to expand the influence of corporations and major donors on our politics at every opportunity. Of course, Obama may have a chance to nominate one or more new justices, and money-in-politics concerns add a measure of urgency to what would be, under any circumstances, essential confirmation fights. But waiting for the right mix on the Court is not a strategy—it’s a gamble, and one that could cost democracy dearly. Most Americans don’t want to take that risk. Three-quarters of them tell pollsters they favor reforms that take corporate money and big-donor influence out of our politics. When there is this much support for fundamental reform, and when the reform impulse is blocked by so much obstruction in Washington, it is not just right but necessary to recognize, as John Bonifaz suggests, that “the people are ready to take their country back. What’s necessary now is to build a movement that is big enough and bold enough to renew their faith that money can be beaten.”

Also in This Forum

Frances Fox Piven: “Movements Making Noise

Aura Bogado: “Dreamers Fight Deportations

Mark Hertsgaard: “Climate Activists Put the Heat on Obama

Laura Flanders: “Demanding Women

Kristen Gwynne: “Who Will Legalize Pot Next?

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