In November 1963, Evelyn Butts, a seamstress and mother of three from Norfolk, Virginia, filed the first lawsuit in federal court challenging her state’s $1.50 poll tax. Annie Harper, a retired domestic worker from Fairfax County, filed a companion suit five months later. In March 1966, the Supreme Court overruled two previous decisions and overturned Virginia’s poll tax, stating that economic status could not be an obstacle to casting a ballot.
“Fee payments or wealth, like race, creed, or color, are unrelated to the citizen’s ability to participate intelligently in the electoral process,” wrote Justice William Douglas in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections. “We conclude that a State violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard.”
Six years later, in Bullock v. Carter, the Supreme Court held that economic status could not be the primary impediment for those seeking elected office, striking down a system of filing fees in Texas that charged prospective candidates up to $8,900 to place their name on the ballot. “We would ignore reality,” wrote Chief Justice Warren Burger, “were we not to recognize that this system falls with unequal weight on voters, as well as candidates, according to their economic status.”
But in the decades after the Harper and Bullock decisions, the skyrocketing cost of political campaigns emerged as a new type of poll tax, with the wealthy so dominating the political process as to erode the value of everyone else’s vote. “The wealth primary impermissibly uses access to wealth as both an obstacle to meaningful political candidacy for nonaffluent citizens and as a proxy for political seriousness,” Jamie Raskin and John Bonifaz wrote in the Yale Law & Policy Review in 1993. “In so doing, it systematically degrades the influence of poor and working people in the political process.”
The “wealth primary” that Raskin and Bonifaz described in the 1992 election—the last time a Clinton ran against a Bush—will be exponentially worse in 2016, when it’s possible that a Clinton and a Bush will again square off. The 1992 presidential election cost $331 million; the 2012 race cost $2.6 billion. The most expensive Senate race in 1992 cost $18 million, compared with $120 million in 2014.
Every election since 1998 has been more expensive than the previous comparable one, but the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the floodgates by allowing unlimited contributions from corporations, individuals, and unions to so-called Super PACs. In theory, Super PACs are legally prohibited from coordinating directly with a candidate, though in practice they’re now performing all the functions of a traditional campaign without any of the corresponding accountability. The cost of federal elections increased by nearly $2 billion from 2008 to 2012 as a result of Citizens United.
In April 2014, the Court further deregulated the campaign-finance system in McCutcheon v. FEC by striking down limits on individual contributions to federal candidates, parties, and political-action committees. “There’s always been a wealth primary,” says David Donnelly, president of Every Voice, which supports public financing of campaigns. “Now it’s a billionaire primary.”
Never before has so much money flowed into the American political system from the deep pockets of an elite few. In 2012, the top 32 Super-PAC donors gave as much money—$313 million—as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney raised from their 3.7 million small donors combined, according to Demos and U.S. PIRG. Twenty-eight percent of total campaign funds came from the 1 percent of the 1 percent, and not a single member of Congress was elected without donations from that exclusive club.
One couple, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, gave over $92 million in 2012, more than the contributions from every resident of 12 separate states. Charles and David Koch have already pledged to spend 10 times that amount in 2016. “Citizens United has paved the way for the United States to become an oligarchic form of society, where a handful of billionaires are going to control our political process,” says Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
When the wealthiest Americans dominate every facet of political life—from who runs, to who wins, to which issues are addressed, to how our leaders govern—what happens to the voting rights of everyone else?
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Until recently, most presidential candidates have pretended that they aren’t beholden to the donors who finance their campaigns. For the 2016 race, however, the GOP’s candidates aren’t even hiding the fact that they want to be sold to the highest bidder. Their primary really is dominated by a handful of billionaires, with the candidates hoping to win all-important “auditions” with big-money funders like the Kochs and the Adelsons, who will collectively spend over $1 billion on the campaign.
A few weeks after Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced his candidacy, his Super PAC took in $31 million, thanks to the support of Long Island hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has won a $10 million pledge to his Super PAC from the billionaire Miami auto dealer Norman Braman. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has been asking donors to give $1 million a pop to his Super PAC, which expects to bring in $100 million by end of May, the most ever for an unannounced candidate this early in the process. The Bush campaign is planning to outsource many important campaign activities to his Super PAC, from advertising to polling to policy development—despite a prohibition on direct coordination between these groups and the official campaigns. Jeb’s onetime chief rival for the nomination, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, has been struggling in part because, “unlike many of his rivals, he appears to lack a prominent wealthy donor prepared, at this point, to sustain a campaign with a multimillion-dollar contribution,” The New York Times noted.
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The presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, has positioned herself as a populist critic of the Citizens United decision. “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment,” she declared at her first campaign event in Monticello, Iowa. During a speech at the New America Foundation last year, she decried “the share of income and wealth going to those at the very top,” which she called “a throwback to the Gilded Age of the robber barons.”
But some of the leading beneficiaries of this new Gilded Age have also been stalwart Clinton supporters throughout her political career, signaling that her 2016 campaign will likely represent a continuation of the 25-year alliance between the Clintons and big business. Five of the top 10 donors to her 2008 campaign were employees of JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and Lehman Brothers. She raised $11 million from the securities and investment sector during her career as a senator, with the largest amount of money coming from employees of Citigroup and Goldman Sachs.
The wealth primary among Democratic candidates for president is not as blatant as it is for Republicans, but it’s just as important. This has posed a particular conundrum for Democrats, who claim to represent the common man. The rise of the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s—under the stewardship of Bill Clinton—pushed the Democratic Party away from its traditional working-class and labor base and closer to corporate America. “They were trying to rhetorically be the working man’s party while raising money from Wall Street and corporate America,” says progressive Democratic strategist Steve Cobble.
The Clintons, always the poster children for the DLC’s strategy, have raked in more than $1 billion in campaign contributions, speaking fees, and donations to their philanthropic causes since Bill ran for president in 1992, The Wall Street Journal has documented. And that includes $208 million from the financial-services sector alone.
Much of the corporate money has gone to the Clinton Foundation in recent years, funding worthwhile charitable work but also raising questions about what the donors expect in return. The likes of Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, Duke Energy, and Citi Foundation have donated anywhere from $1 million to $5 million to the foundation. Sixty companies that lobbied the State Department during Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state donated $26 million to the Clinton Foundation. It’s difficult to separate the Clintons’ political lives from their personal and charitable endeavors; Hillary’s new finance director, Dennis Cheng, was recently chief development officer for the Clinton Foundation.
Hillary will become the first Democratic presidential candidate to personally raise money for the party’s top Super PAC, Priorities USA, with a goal of $200 million to $300 million—as much as, if not more than, she raised during her 2008 campaign. “I don’t question her integrity; I don’t question her views,” says Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig. “But I do think it’s practically impossible to imagine the public looking at the history of the Clintons for the past 25 years and believing that they are not deeply connected to the influence of big money.”
Where Clinton gets the money for her campaign will tell us a lot—as much as her policy pronouncements— about what she would do as president. Her overwhelming financial advantage and connections to wealthy donors help explain why so few heavyweights in the Democratic Party have decided to run against her this time around.
“Why is she the front-runner? First of all, she’s Hillary Clinton, and she has the best résumé in America for being president,” says former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who has already endorsed Clinton. “And second, there’s nobody in the Democratic Party that can raise as much money as she can. Not only can they not raise as much money as her; they can’t get close. It narrows the field dramatically, and that’s not particularly good for the country.”
In June 2003, Dean shocked the political establishment by raising $828,000 over the Internet in one day for his presidential candidacy, with an average donation of $112. Dean raised 38 percent of his total funds from donations of $200 or less, planting the seeds for what many predicted would be a small-donor revolution in American politics. Four years later, Barack Obama raised a third of his record-breaking $745 million campaign haul from small donors, while Ron Paul raised 39 percent from small dollars on the Republican side.
But Citizens United has made it significantly harder for insurgent candidates like Dean or Paul to catch fire without the support of a billionaire backer. “Do I think it’s possible to come from nowhere and end up leading the pack?” Dean says. “Yes—with the right message, and at a time when people really want to make a statement. Do I think it’s possible to raise enough money from a grassroots campaign to win the presidency? I think that might be really problematic. That’s where the problem is, and where people get disillusioned; the Supreme Court put the government up for sale.”
Another Vermonter, Bernie Sanders, is the Dean of this cycle: In the first 24 hours after announcing his candidacy, he raised $1.5 million from 35,000 donors, who gave an average of $43.54. The contrast between the donors to Sanders and Clinton couldn’t be starker. Seven of Clinton’s top 10 donors over her political career are employees of banks or corporate law firms: Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, DLA Piper, JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, Skadden Arps, and Lehman Brothers. Nineteen of Sanders’s top 20 donors over his political career are unions; his top donor is the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Sanders’s top 20 donors combined gave him less money than employees of Citigroup and Goldman Sachs gave Clinton.
Despite his impressive early small-donor haul, Sanders will not be able to compete with the large donors who will bankroll Clinton’s campaign and can write unlimited multimillion-dollar checks to her Super PAC. “It’s a huge issue,” says Sanders, “and not just for me. We are reaching the point where it may be impossible for a candidate who is trying to represent working families, who is not wealthy, who is not courting billionaires, to be able to win an election.”
This money tsunami not only buys access and influence; it also shapes the terms of the debate. Because of the wealth primary, it’s difficult to imagine a Democratic front-runner for president supporting the breakup of the largest banks, or a Republican frontrunner acknowledging that global warming is real or criticizing illegal settlements in Israel.
There is also a striking disconnect between what the wealthy and the rest of the country believe, particularly on core economic issues. Sixty-eight percent of the public believe “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job,” but only 19 percent of the wealthy agree. Fifty-four percent of the public want to raise taxes on the rich to combat income inequality, but only 17 percent of the wealthy concur.
Despite commanding a majority on these issues, everyday Americans have much less ability to see their political views become law. Research by the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” In the United States, they concluded, “the majority does not rule—at least in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.”
This doesn’t mean that voting is hopeless or that every candidate is the same. Few can now argue that Al Gore was no different from George W. Bush or that Barack Obama would have nominated the same Supreme Court justices as Mitt Romney. A Democratic Congress will have very different priorities from a Republican one. And money doesn’t always determine electoral races—in his stunning upset in last year’s Republican primary for Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District, David Brat spent less money on his campaign than Eric Cantor did at steakhouses.
Yet two converging trends have made it far easier for the wealthy to translate their economic power into political power. “The campaign-finance system has shifted radically under the Roberts Court,” says Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law. “There are more avenues for the wealthy to have greater influence. And the wealthy are wealthier: There’s profound economic inequality, and that creates this greater disparity in the ability of people to influence politics.”
The megarich have so much power these days that even the bottom half of the 1 percent is bemoaning its diminished influence. “When you look at super-PAC money and the large donations that we’re seeing, the regular bundlers feel a little disenfranchised,” Bobbie Kilberg, a Republican fundraiser who raised $4 million for Mitt Romney, told The Washington Post.
We are all proletarians now.
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In November 1964, after Lyndon Johnson’s re-election, the leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee held a retreat in Waveland, Mississippi, to plot the civil-rights group’s next steps. Four months later, the SNCC’s chair, John Lewis, would march for voting rights in Selma, helping to win passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The VRA transformed politics by enfranchising millions of Americans, but 25 years after its passage, leaders of the civil-rights movement and the campaign-finance-reform community returned to Waveland, feeling that their work was incomplete. “Getting private money out of elections is the unfinished business of the civil-rights movement and the Voting Rights Act,” says Gwendolyn Patton, a youth leader with SNCC in the 1960s. “People here were murdered trying to get the right to vote, but what good is it if there’s no one to vote for?”
The 1966 Harper decision held that a state could not “dilute a citizen’s vote on account of his economic status or other such factors,” but that’s exactly what the wealth primary has done. It discriminates not just on the basis of class, but also on the basis of race.
Voters of color are at a marked disadvantage in the wealth primary. They make up 37 percent of the US population but only 1 percent of campaign contributors and 10 percent of elected officials. “Because they control fewer resources, people of color generally have less opportunity than others to participate in politics and elect representatives of their choice,” George Washington University law professor Spencer Overton wrote in the Texas Law Review. “A political process based on private money gives wealthier white communities disproportionately large influence in determining all candidates.”
John Bonifaz’s organization, Free Speech for People, has recently been exploring whether the wealth primary violates Section 2 of the VRA, which prohibits a voting system in which the “totality of circumstances” leads to minority voters having “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice.”
When Congress reauthorized the VRA in 1982, the Senate named nine factors that courts should consider in judging a potentially discriminatory voting system. Two relate to the wealth primary: “the extent to which members of the minority group…bear the effects of discrimination in such areas as education, employment and health, which hinder their ability to participate effectively in the political process,” and “the exclusion of members of the minority group from candidate slating processes.” Federal courts have previously invoked these factors, with one noting in a 1998 case from Tennessee, for example, that “the economic and educational isolation of African-Americans…limits their ability to fund and mount political campaigns. In this sense therefore, blacks are not able to equally participate in the political process.”
This disparity is particularly notable today, when the flood of big money into the political system coincides with renewed efforts to make it more difficult for citizens—particularly people of color—to vote, whether by shutting down registration drives, cutting early voting, requiring strict voter ID, purging the voting rolls, or disenfranchising ex-felons. “We are facing a dual attack on our democracy—everyday voters are being disenfranchised, while corporations are being hyper-enfranchised,” said former NAACP president Ben Jealous in 2013.
At a recent talk in New York, Lawrence Lessig drew parallels between the fight for voting rights in the 1960s and the push to get money out of politics today. He showed footage of civil-rights marchers being beaten on Bloody Sunday in Selma. “They were fighting for equality, for an equal right to vote,” Lessig said. “Here’s what we must recognize: We don’t have the vote either. We don’t have an equal vote—not in the ballot election, but in the money election. Not in a general election, but in the green primary.”
Fifty years ago, because of poll taxes and literacy tests, African-Americans were systematically denied the right to vote. Now, thanks to the wealth primary, the vast majority of Americans are being denied the rightful value of their vote.