Magazine article The American Prospect

Why You Can't Kill Election Reform

Magazine article The American Prospect

Why You Can't Kill Election Reform

Article excerpt

Over the past few years, given the bad news that just keeps coming their way, America's campaign-finance reformers have started to look like eternal optimists. They've pretty much had to be.

Take the one-two wallop they suffered early this spring. First, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York state legislators killed reformers' best chance of a breakthrough in 2014--a public-financing program in which small-dollar donations would be matched or multiplied by public funds. (New York City already runs its own "matching" program.) The idea was to give less-wealthy donors a bigger voice in legislative and gubernatorial races while decreasing the clout of those with deep pockets. Instead, reformers ended up with a microscopic pilot program for the state comptroller's race. A few days later came much worse news: In McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court threw out the limit that Congress had put on the total amount wealthy donors can give to campaigns and political parties. While there are still caps on how much donors can give to a specific candidate, now anyone can give to as many campaigns as he or she pleases.

As they reeled from their latest setbacks, clean-election advocates tried to find a reason to be hopeful. Ian Vandewalker, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which advocated for the New York proposal, told me that in the wake of McCutcheon, "public financing is the most promising thing that's left." But McCutcheon illustrated just what makes the Roberts Court so pernicious when it comes to money and elections; slowly but steadily, decision by decision, the justices are decimating every legal justification for reform.

Underpinning the Court's infamous 2010 Citizens United ruling was the belief that giving less-wealthy donors more of a voice in elections is not a good enough reason for Congress to regulate political money. A year later, in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett, the Court struck down a public-financing program that tried to decrease the power of wealthy "self-funded" candidates. The Arizona law offered grants to those who agreed to spend only $500 of their own money on their campaigns and agreed to debate their opponents. The funding increased as opponents and independent groups spent more; the idea was to prevent less-affluent candidates from being disadvantaged. The Arizona decision threw similar state programs into legal limbo. The Court decided the program was unfair to candidates who chose not to participate; in other words, candidates with more money to spend have a constitutional right to overwhelm their competition. …

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