Only a Tiny Fraction of Americans Give Significantly to Campaigns (Zocalo Public Square)


“One person, one vote” is a bedrock of our democracy. From the beginning, this nation explicitly rejected the plutocracy the Founding Fathers knew so well. That each citizen’s vote counts the same as any other citizen’s—regardless of wealth or social status—remains an ideal that continues to inspire around the world, even when we fall short.

Certainly our currently campaign finance system falls short. And the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision made the situation infinitely worse by overturning more than 100 years of campaign finance law and regulation. Now corporations can use their treasury funds, sometimes amounting to billions of dollars, to make direct expenditures to influence elections. The growth in small-dollar giving via the Internet is encouraging, but doesn’t threaten the domination of this system by the wealthy elite. Fewer than 200 individuals have funded 80 percent of Super PAC spending, and the well-heeled interests are funneling millions to “dark money” groups like Crossroads GPS or Priorities USA. Contrast that with the fact that only 0.26 percent of all Americans—yes, that’s one-quarter of one percent—contribute more than $200 to federal elections.

Meaningful reform would provide new incentives in the system for candidates to pursue, and for citizens to give, small dollar donations. U.S. Representatives David Price (D-NC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) have introduced just such a bill in Congress. Passage should be a priority for the 113th Congress.

Without these changes, Washington will continue to work according to a familiar maxim: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

Meredith McGehee serves as Policy Director at the Campaign Legal Center where she directs the legislative and media policy efforts. She also is the principal of McGehee Strategies, which specializes in public interest advocacy campaigns. This opinion piece originally appeared in the Zócalo Public Square on October 17, 2012 in a forum entitled “Big Money. Small Money. More Money.”