The New Poll Tax: What Blacks Need to Know about Campaign Finance

By Overton, Spencer | The Crisis, January/February 2004 | Go to article overview

The New Poll Tax: What Blacks Need to Know about Campaign Finance


Overton, Spencer, The Crisis


The presidential primary season is finally underway and nothing - not the candidates' experience, not where they stand on the issues, probably not even their race or gender - has had a greater influence on the viability of their campaigns than money. Money in politics is a critical voting rights challenge. Large contributions from an overwhelmingly White donor class disadvantage Africans Americans, other minorities and the poor, no less than inferior voting machines or laws that deny voting rights to former felons.

Money raised by federal candidates comes from less than 2 percent of the population. This narrow, wealthy class is roughly 99 percent White, and its large contributions determine which candidates have the money to pay for television ads, staff, travel and other expenses necessary to run a viable campaign.

Minorities and the poor are disenfranchised long before election day. The demand for large contributions effectively excludes people of color from the selection of candidates. As historian Roger Wilkins once stated, "The current campaign finance system is simply a poll tax fashioned at Tiffany's." Big money is drowning out the voices of average Americans.

CIVIL RIGHTS ARE AT ISSUE

White, suburban, "good-government" types have dominated traditional campaign reform groups. These organizations believe that the biggest threat to democracy is "corruption," such as when a politician gives a special favor to a donor in exchange for a $100,000 contribution. Grass-roots groups like the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, however, are leading a movement to highlight a more pressing but largely ignored problem posed by money in politics. Most Americans - including a disproportionately large number of African Americans - are effectively excluded from determining which candidates have the resources to run a competitive campaign.

The Color of Money, a December 2003 report on a study conducted by the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, Public Campaign and the William C. Velasquez Institute, illustrates the racial divide. The study shows that less than 3 percent of campaign funds come from predominantly Black neighborhoods and that the largest contributions come from overwhelmingly White areas.

For example, residents of a Manhattan zip code, 10021, a community on the exclusive Upper East Side that is only 1.6 percent Black, provided the most money to national politicians in the 2000 and 2002 elections - $28.4 million. This wealthy enclave contributed more federal campaign money than the 532 Zip codes nationwide with the largest percentage of African American residents; the 533 Zip codes with the largest percentage of Latino residents; and the 167 Zip codes with the largest percentage of Asian American residents.

The Upper East Side contributes about $310 per adult. In contrast, residents of an overwhelmingly African American and Latino Harlem Zip code a few blocks north, 10039, provided less than 50 cents per adult. Across the United States, residents of the 500 U.S. Zip codes with the largest percentage of African Americans provided an average of about $4 per adult to candidates.

These racial disparities in political contributions stem not from political apathy, but from access to resources. African Americans today have only eight cents for every dollar of wealth that Whites possess. Generations of statesponsored discrimination continue to hinder African Americans with respect not only to education, health care, and housing, but also political participation.

THE CHOSEN FEW

Voting generally consists of choosing among federal, state and local candidates preselected by wealthy, White contributors. Even in predominantly Black districts, wealthier White contributors from outside of the district often play a crucial role in selecting which Blacks have the money to run for office.

In 2002, the well-financed Black challengers Artur Davis and Denise Majette beat Black incumbents Earl Hilliard of Alabama and Cynthia McKinney of Georgia for seats in Congress. …

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