There’s a story being told about the 2016 presidential race that says big money in politics no longer matters all that much. After all, the narrative goes, just look at the glaring example of Jeb Bush’s inability to buy his way to the GOP nomination even after his campaign and Super PAC spent an astonishing $150 million. While it’s true that money isn’t everything in politics, dismissing the influence of big money in politics couldn’t be more wrong.
As Jeb Bush supporters discovered, money can’t make someone a great candidate—but it does function as a gatekeeper for one who is able to run a viable campaign in the first place. While access to money doesn’t buy you victory, in today’s campaign-finance landscape, you can’t be victorious without it—and a lot of it. What’s more, big money skews policy priorities and buys access once candidates are elected into office. Sanders’s massive number of small donors notwithstanding, billionaires are still ruling the presidential race overall, with the 100 top donors eclipsing the contributions of the 2 million smallest donors. And as law and political science professor Rick Hasen has noted, just the “threat of big money scares politicians away from taking positions against the donor class.”
Despite the “money doesn’t matter” narrative, everyday Americans understand that the system is rigged. Three in four Americans think the influence of money on politics is greater than in past years, and that elected officials “don’t care what people like me think.” Concern about money in politics is stronger than ever, as is the momentum to fix it. But for all of the talk about the millions of dollars in special-interest cash in the 2016 elections, the solutions to rebalance the system already taking root in cities and states across the country, outlined below, have garnered less attention.
Overturning Decisions Like Citizens United
The Supreme Court’s rulings in cases like Citizens United have left lawmakers unable to set commonsense limits on money in elections. But as soon as the decision was handed down six years ago, activists started organizing in their own communities as part of a long-term push to overturn it. That organizing has led 16 states and more than 680 cities and towns to call for a constitutional amendment to undo this damage. In 2016 voters in Washington, and potentially in California, will have the opportunity to vote directly on statewide measures in support of an amendment.
One of the towns that recently passed a resolution supporting an amendment is Derry, New Hampshire, where a retired special education teacher named Corinne Dodge led an effort to pass the measure through her city’s conservative town council. Dodge became active in political organizing in the aftermath of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children and six adults dead. She joined an organization of mothers focused on ending gun violence, but was frustrated by the inability to push forward even basic, popular gun-safety measures.