Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court took the latest in a series of big steps towards empowering the wealthiest Americans to spend unlimited money in elections.
Before the court’s decision, donors were limited to influencing elections with no more than $123,200 in contributions to candidates, parties, and political committees every two years. Now they can spend as much as they like, as long as they spread it out widely enough among different candidates who support their interests. Caps on donations to individual candidates remain, but the court ruled the aggregate limits unconstitutional.
It’s easy to grasp the implications of McCutcheon v. FEC, and other recent rulings like the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, if you consider the role of money in the 2012 Congressional races. The best-financed candidate won in 91 percent of the 467 races that year and the winning candidates outspent their opponents by roughly 20 to 1. Make no mistake: Money controls the outcome of elections. And when a small number of wealthy donors front the money that determines who controls the levers of government, that’s the definition of oligarchy – not democracy.
Maine’s pioneering Clean Election Act proves that another way is possible. Since the law was implemented in 2000, candidates in state elections have had the option of using public funds to run their campaigns. All that’s required is raising a set number of $5 donations to demonstrate significant support. The law’s impact has been dramatic, filling our legislature with lawmakers who can attribute their campaign victories to support from voters rather than from rich donors who paid their bills. Roughly 80 percent of Maine’s legislative candidates used the Clean Election program between 2002 to 2010. These candidates did not need to spend their time courting big-money donations and once elected they were not under pressure to support policies that please the wealthiest of their supporters.
Advocates of federal campaign finance reform, such as Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, often cite Maine’s public financing system as providing one of the best models. Lessig, speaking at the University of Southern Maine last month, pointed to polls showing broad national bipartisan support for a clean elections system like ours, and he called for activists on the right and the left to band together against mainstream politicians who benefit from the status quo.
If Maine’s Clean Elections Act was applied to federal elections, and thoroughly funded and strengthened, it’s a safe bet that Congressional priorities would shift profoundly, with a lot less emphasis on policies that happen to align with the nation’s plutocrats. It might also spell an end to an era in which half of the members of Congress are millionaires.
There’s one major problem, though, with looking to Maine’s system for solutions: It’s broken. In 2011 the US Supreme Court dealt another blow to campaign finance law when it struck down the “matching funds” provisions of state campaign finance laws as unconstitutional; now, when privately-funded candidates raise more money than their clean elections opponents, those opponents cannot receive additional “matching” funds to level the playing field.