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.