11 Sep Empowering Small Donors in Elections Will Strengthen Democracy
By: Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Every Voice Center
On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton released a plan to reduce the influence of big-money donors by amplifying the voices of everyday Americans through small-donor public financing.
Clinton’s policy proposals reflect those offered in Fighting Big Money, Empowering People: A 21st Century Democracy Agenda, a policy memo released in July by Every Voice and a dozen other democracy reform organizations. My colleague, Every Voice’s David Donnelly called it a “strong, bold plan” saying, “What she has proposed is both good policy and good politics.”
A key element of both Clinton’s and the reformers’ agenda, a plank with broad public support, is empowering small donors through the provision of public matching funds which would put everyday Americans back at the center of our government. Yet an idea persists about small-donor funding that it has the potential to increase partisanship in America and thus should not be supported. This most recently appeared in an article by the Washington Post’s Max Ehrenfreund entitled “Why Clinton’s big campaign finance proposal could lead to more partisan gridlock”.
While the headline oversells the point of the article and some points are made to the contrary, it is is a notion worth addressing.
Here are four reasons why this critique of small-donor public financing isn’t compelling:
- America is increasingly polarized. The polarization of American politics is a national phenomenon with a long history that can be observed in places with and without public financing programs. This is the reality of our political system. Even if we were to cede that small donors are polarized in their positions, we know that large donors are polarized too. So, if our choice is between letting a polarized few or a polarized many influence our politicians, why should we blame public financing for polarization?
- Academics disagree on the issue of public financing and polarization. College Professor Michael Miller, who literally wrote the book on public financing systems, said “there’s no relationship between accepting public funding and taking more extreme positions.” Although he said the theory sounded plausible, he said, “I just don’t see it in the data, and I always follow the data.” Campaign Finance Institute and SUNY Albany Professor Michael Malbin agrees.
- The principles of a good public financing system are focused on access and participation, not ideology or political parties. If we want a government that is truly of, by, and for the people we must empower everyday Americans, increase political participation, and reduce the influence of big donors. As Every Voice Center found, presidential candidates rely on funding from an unrepresentative elite few who hail from mostly white and mostly wealthy neighborhoods. This reliance on an elite group of Americans to fund our elections forces politicians to focus on the desires of the donor class, which are often out of step with everyone else.Opening up the process to allow people from more diverse and less “connected” backgrounds to run for office—instead of those simply anointed by the deepest-pocket lobbying interests—changes who lawmakers are accountable to.
- Politics could dramatically change if raising money from small donors was incentivized. Right now, it is often insurgent candidates who reach out to small donors for the money to run their campaigns. When all candidates are incentivized to raise money from small donors, we envision millions upon millions of people making small donati0ns in numbers that significantly exceed the current patterns for candidates. Candidates from the right, left, and everyplace in between, will make their case and build a base by reaching out to everyday people, winning or falling short, in large part, based on their ability to connect with the public in a broad way, not relying on extremes on either end.
Small-donor matching systems bring more people into the elections process. As Every Voice board member and head of Mayday PAC Zephyr Teachout says in the Washington Post article, she wants “to have a world in which lots of different points of views are shared”.
At a time when there are deep divides on our country’s direction, isn’t it better to have that debate in the hands of lawmakers who are more closely tied to their constituents? That’s pretty fundamental to democracy.