12 solutions to our dumb, big-money elections that will restore your faith in America
Welcome to the 2014 Meh-terms, America.
Sure, the attack ads are blanketing the airwaves, and sure, some guys from Kansas are spending millions for your vote, but all the mainstream media wants to talk about is how much no one actually cares about the midterms. America has had enough red meat rhetoric to send a grizzly bear into cardiac arrest, and that appears to be what has happened.
Steeped in nearly $4 billion dollars’ worth of campaign spending – most of it on vapid, sleazy campaign ads – it’s really no wonder that Americans are tuning out the midterms in droves.
To alleviate your despair, here’s an (almost) exhaustive list, in no particular order, of solutions to America’s big dumb, big-money elections.
1. Pass a Constitutional Amendment
The Supreme Court’s delusional ruling in Citizens United helped to demolish the last vestiges of sanity in the system that politicians use to finance their campaigns. For elections to be less dumb we have to make sure that everybody has a say in who gets elected, not just the people with $150 million dollars to blow on elections. The 28th Amendment would simply state that Congress has the authority to bar corporate spending in elections and place reasonable limits on campaign contributions and spending for the sake of leveling the playing field for those of us who aren’t pulling down nine figures this year.
Organizations that do not disclose their donors, known as dark money groups, can spend millions to influence elections without disclosing to voters who is actually funding the ads. That sort of makes accountability hard to come by. The DISCLOSE Act would simply require organizations that spend $10,000 or more on election-related ads to disclose their donors.
3. Fair Elections Now Act / Democracy Is For People Act / Empowering Citizens Act
These bills would provide matching public funds to candidates who are able to collect large numbers of small donations. The first two would effect House and Senate Races, and the last one would be for both congressional and presidential races. Public financing would empower small donors by encouraging candidates to chat it up with regular people instead of spending four hours a day on the phone chasing millionaires (which can really skew your perspective on the important things in life).
Nothing fancy here unless you count retiring filing cabinets and putting data on computers as fancy. The Real Time Transparency act would require campaigns, parties, and committees to disclose contributions online within 48 hours of receiving them. And before you tell me that this should already be a thing, please ruminate on the fact that in the year 2014 the Senate still files its contribution reports on paper.
Don’t skip this one just because you’re not a well-heeled investment guru. The Shareholder Protection Act would require companies that spend money in elections to disclose that spending to their shareholders, which also includes anyone with a retirement account. And even if you don’t have a retirement account, no one likes to miss out on a good boycott.
6. SEC Political Spending Disclosure Rulemaking
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) can also require corporations to disclose their political spending, but unlike the Shareholder Protection Act, it won’t have to break a filibuster along the way. More than one million people have told the SEC to get on it. Last week the New York Times told the SEC to get on it. People would stop nagging the SEC if the agency would just get on it.
Remember that whole IRS “scandal” thing? Well the real scandal is that hundreds of political groups have decided to register with the IRS as nonprofits so that they can spend money in elections without disclosing their donors. How do they do this? We’re talking about the tax code, so obviously it’s a loophole. The Bright Lines Project aims to close the loophole and bring a boat-load of accountability back to elections.
The states have been much more on the ball than the federal government went it comes to maintaining some scrap of integrity in elections. California’s existing disclosure laws have already clued voters in about the $3 million that Chevron is dumping into a city council election. And Maryland is working on passing its own version of the Shareholder Protection Act. States like New Mexico, Colorado, Massachusetts, and many others are also working on passing legislation to make elections more fair and transparent.
Earlier this month the Federal Election Commission (FEC) awoke from a four-year coma to actually draft some post-Citizens United rules for campaign spending. To be clear, the agency didn’t come up with anything helpful – the agency entirely side-stepped disclosure in its new rulemaking – but now that it’s back from the dead, it’s good time to ask the FEC to take this up.
10. Fighting Money With Money
An ironic approach embraced by MayDay PAC and Every Voice Action is fighting big money with, well, more money. The argument goes that to fix the game, you have to play it. These PACs have raised millions of dollars from thousands of people in order to elect lawmakers who promise to support anti-corruption legislation.
11. American Anti-Corruption Act
The American Anti-Corruption Act is an as-of-yet unintroduced, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, anti-corruption bill. Written by former FEC Commissioner Trevor Potter (you know him from the Colbert Report), this law would tackle the unsavory relationships between lobbyists, campaign contributions, and the revolving door.
12. GO VOTE
Do some Google jujitsu and find out if your member of Congress supports any of these reforms. After your members of Congress are elected or re-elected, remind them that you still think elections should be fair and open. The solutions are right here. The next step is creating the political will to make it happen.
Did I miss a good solution? Let me know in the comments.
Kelly Ngo is the Online Advocacy Organizer for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.