Dēmos’s analysis of campaign finance records bears this out. Ninety-two percent of federal election donors in 2014 and 91 percent of donors in 2012 were white. The numbers are even more skewed among large donors. Ninety-four percent of those giving more than $5,000 in 2014 and 93 percent in 2012 were white.
What’s the consequence of a political system dependent on an overwhelmingly white donor class? The perpetuation of racial inequality.
First, the big money system is a barrier to entry for Black and brown candidates. Studies show they’re less likely to have networks of rich friends and business associates, making it difficult for them to survive the “wealth primary” where donors filter the candidate pool before a single vote is cast. When candidates of color do run, they raise on average 47 percent less than their white counterparts. White candidates are also far more likely to be in a position to self-fund their campaigns. This is a big reason 90 percent of our elected officials are white, even though 37 percent of us are people of color.
Second, the policy preferences of the donor class are far out of step with those of the general public, and particularly of people of color.
On economic policy, for example, polls show that people of color support the role of government in reducing inequality at significantly higher rates (67 percent) than do people earning over $100,000 a year (53 percent). People of color are also more likely to list job creation and affordable college as their economic priorities, whereas the wealthy are more likely to cite lower taxes and deficit reduction.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, when elected officials champion an agenda that serves the interests of the wealthy at the expense of Black and brown families and working people across America.
The challenge is that the Supreme Court has invalidated commonsense campaign finance protections time and again. It has struck down reasonable contribution limits and restrictions on self-financing, allowed the rise of SuperPACs, and greenlit wealthy individuals pumping millions into the system.
H.R. 1 contains innovative programs that would stay within the lines drawn by the Court and still curb the harmful influence of big money.
The most significant is a public financing system for congressional candidates that would match small-donor contributions — those under $200 — at a rate of 6:1. In this way, a $20 donation would become $140, a $200 donation $1,400. The cost of the program is reasonable — one estimate is $3 billion over 10 years, or $1 per citizen per year. The bill also creates a pilot program of $25 “My Choice” vouchers for people to give to congressional candidates they support.
These programs would amplify the voices of people currently being drowned out by big money. It would offer a path for congressional and presidential candidates to rely on donations from everyday people, not wealthy donors. Similar public financing programs in New York City and Arizona and a voucher program in Seattle have diversified the donor pool and allowed more candidates of color to run. These programs can help produce more equitable public policy. For example, the advent of public financing in Connecticut was crucial to breaking a legislative logjam and becoming the first state in the nation to guarantee paid sick leave.
Countering the undue influence of big money in our elections is a civil rights issue. H.R. 1, the For the People Act, would be a giant step forward. The American people should demand that it become law.