Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Big Bucks or Bust - Elections Reduced to Fundraising Horserace

As Steven T. Dennis and Thomas Dennison report in The Gazzette (Maryland), two candidates for U.S. Senate for Maryland, U.S. Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Christopher Van Hollen Jr., each have more than $1 million in their campaign warchests, while former Rep. Kweisi Mfume is lagging far behind with around $200,000. All three candidates are members of the same party and will face each other in the 2006 primary.

This focus on fundraising is typical in the early stages of a campaign, as candidates jockey for position and opinion-makers and the press sort through who are the viable candidates. (For other examples of stories emphasizing early candidate fundraising, check out this story about the Georgia lieutenant governor's race and this story about the Florida governor's race.) This isn't surprising considering that the candidate who spends the most money wins in 90-95% of federal and most state elections.

But, it highlights a problem with our current system of funding campaigns. Instead of candidates being judged by their position on the issues, their strength of character, or their ability to inspire and communicate their ideas to people, they are judged by their ability to raise money. If they are able to raise money, they are a viable candidate and get covered by the press. If they aren't able to raise money, even if they are otherwise the best qualified candidate, they are not considered viable, and whatever press attention they receive dwindles to nothing, discrediting them in the eyes of the public and making it more difficult to communicate their message to the people. (See US PIRG's "Wealth Primary" report or the National Voting Rights Institute for more on this.)

This system places a crazily disproportionate amount of power in the hands of those who can afford to contribute serious cash to candidates. And a relatively small-seeming amount of money can constitute "serious cash". At the federal level, contributions to candidates are limited to $2,000 for the primary and $2,000 for the general. While many Americans can afford to own cars worth more than $2,000 and houses worth considerably more, 98% can't afford to give even $1,000 to a candidate, much less $4,000.

[Some states like Ohio ($10,000 for state candidates) and California ($22,300 for gubernatorial candidates, $5,600 for other statewide candidates) have even higher limits, while others (Illinois, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Oregon to name a few) have no limits at all. In these places, wealthy Americans have even greater influence over elections and thus the laws by which the citizens in those states live.]

The upshot? Those candidates whose positions on the issues are favored by wealthy folks raise the money, get the press, and get elected to office. Those candidates who would represent the rest of us don't raise the big bucks, don't get the press, and don't get elected to office. Our system of funding campaigns thus results in a government representative not of you and me, but of a tiny fraction of rich Americans.

"We the people" has no income requirement.

Check out Derek's column on the effect of the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on Americans' ability to solve this inequity.

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