Big Money. Small Money. More Money.

October 20, 2012 | Zocalo Public Square |

Most Americans who contribute to the presidential campaign are making the kind of $20 or $50 contributions that average folks can afford, and that’s a good thing. Voting is only one way to make our political voices heard, and joining together with other citizens to support candidates and issue organizations is an important part of our democracy. We should create policies that encourage even more non-wealthy citizens to get in the act—like matching small contributions with public funds, or providing tax credits or coupons for small gifts.

But, despite increasing participation by small donors, U.S. elections are becoming even more dominated by a few special interests and wealthy individuals—and this flies in the face of our shared value of political equality. Candidates have long depended upon $1,000+ gifts from a tiny minority of well-heeled donors for the majority of their funds.

Despite President Obama’s impressive small-donor fundraising, nearly half of his 2008 campaign funds came in contributions of at least $1,000, and only about a quarter came from the millions of people giving $200 or less. Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision allowed direct corporate spending on elections and cleared the way for Super PACs and other “outside spending” groups to gather and spend unlimited funds. This gave the wealthy even more clout. Just 47 people giving at least $1 million accounted for 57 percent of 2012 Super PAC fundraising through June, for example.

This matters because the wealthy don’t live, work, or think like the rest of us—so their outsized power distorts policy outcomes. Lax candidate contribution limits, combined with unlimited giving to outside groups, has created a democracy in which the strength of a citizen’s voice depends upon the size of her wallet.

The good news is that the vast majority of Americans support strong measures to build a truly equal democracy—from the small-donor incentives mentioned above to more fundamental changes such as amending the constitution to give Congress and the states the power to rein in big money. Now it’s time to get to work.