“One person, one vote.” That’s a principle most Americans can get behind. We may disagree on who should be elected, but that’s how the process is supposed to work: we each get one vote.
But that’s not how it works. Long before Election Day, there’s an unofficial “vote” where the rich vote with their dollars, and most Americans don’t even count.
In the early stages of a campaign, nothing is more important than money. A candidate who can’t raise enough won’t be considered “serious” and has little chance of surviving it to Election Day. As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once put it, the first third of a campaign is “money, money, money.” The second third is “money, money, and press.” Voters show up towards the end.
Most campaign money is not coming from small online contributions; it’s coming from a tiny group of rich funders. Only 13.4 percent of American households earn $100,000 or more. But in federal elections, 85.7 percent of contributions over $200 and 93.3 percent of $1,000 contributions — the big contributions, that candidates notice and compete for — come from that elite set. In fact, more than 40 percent of total contributions come from just 0.01 percent of the voting age population.
Sending money to political candidates isn’t inherently wrong. These funders aren’t bad people. But they aren’t like the rest of us. Their views on economic policy — “pocketbook” issues like the role of government in protecting our right to health care, providing security for the unemployed, or guaranteeing that all hardworking Americans are paid a livable wage — are starkly different from those of most Americans.
While nearly everyone has an opportunity to vote on Election Day, the wealthy have a big hand in determining who we get to vote for on the ballot. And that goes against the idea of voter equality.
Montana law challenged
Some states have passed laws to prevent the wealthy from gaining too much influence in elections. In 1994, Montana voters passed a ballot initiative setting limits on the amounts of campaign contributions. These limits range from $340 for state House elections to $1,300 for the governor’s race. Most people in Montana (one of the poorest states in the country) don’t have anywhere near $340 (let alone $1,300) to give to politicians, and very few contribute the maximum. But some do, and would give more if it wasn’t illegal. The contribution limits have helped prevent Montana elections from spinning out of control and limit the worst violations of voter equality. And they haven’t given either party an edge: the National Institute on Money in State Politics ranks Montana as having some of the most competitive elections in the country.
Now, big money donors are challenging Montana’s contribution limits as “too low.” They say the limits violate their freedom of speech. Amazingly, a federal judge agreed. The state has appealed, and a federal appeals court in San Francisco will decide the case later this year in light of the Supreme Court’s recent campaign finance decisions, like its infamous McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision that it issued in April.
Let’s hope the court understands that “one person, one vote” means that major funders shouldn’t have even more influence than ordinary voters.