Can People-Powered Democracy Work? A Maryland Congressman Bets "Yes"

Congressman John Sarbanes was frustrated with the state of political fundraising in the wake of Citizens United, and looking for another way.  He'd heard about systems that increase the value of small contributions by matching them with public dollars—turning a $25 contribution into $150 or $175, for example.  This way, candidates could run a viable race by reaching out to the grassroots--$10, $20, $50 at a time—rather than constantly dialing for $2,500 checks (and therefore spending time and effort reaching out to a very narrow class of donors, many of whom don't even live in the districts they seek to represent).

But, before he placed his eggs in that basket, and before he could convince his colleagues on Capitol Hill to try a different path, he felt he needed to answer one important question: would it work in practice? Could a modern candidate for Congress—who wouldn't benefit from the high profile of a presidential race—actually go out and raise hundreds or even thousands of small contributions? Or was small-dollar fundraising a romantic holdout of a bygone era, a quaint anachronism like making a mix tape for a high school crush? 

So, he set out to do it himself, and quite literally put his money where is mouth is. In October 2011, Congressman Sarbanes launched a Grassroots Donor Project. He set aside $500,000 in campaign funds that he would not touch until he could raise 1,000 contributions of $100 or less. On July 9, 2012 his campaign announced he'd reached his goal.

And, today Congressman Sarbanes is announcing the introduction of legislation to create a system that will harness the power of grassroots donors and help ordinary citizens counteract the increasing influence of the tiny minority of wealthy donors that currently dominate the process.

The Grassroots Democracy Act has 29 original co-sponsors and is supported by Demos, the Brennan Center, Committee for Economic Development, Communication Workers of America, Common Cause, Demand Progress, Public Campaign, Public Citizen, Rootstrikers, and US PIRG.

The legislation seeks to solve two inter-related problems. First, in our current system, the strength of a citizen's voice depends upon the size of her wallet. Next, because of this, grassroots candidates who seek to represent the interests of ordinary voters face an uphill battle in running for Congress. They face a system that gives a big leg up to opponents who take positions supported by the wealthy minority: a contribution limit set well beyond the level that average-earning citizens can afford to give (now at $5,000 per election cycle and rising due to inflation) and unlimited spending by outside groups raising unlimited funds from well-heeled individuals and institutions. Just 47 people giving at least $1 million, for example, were responsible for more than half of all individual contributions to Super PACs between January 2011 and June 2012. 

The consequences of our big-money system have been dire for struggling working families and the shrinking middle class. Put simply, it is getting harder for the vast majority of Americans to get ahead as our national priorities are increasingly set by and for a small, wealthy elite.

The Grassroots Democracy Act can help level the playing field, giving grassroots candidates a better shot by amplifying the voices of ordinary voters. It does this in three basic ways: by providing incentives and help for non-wealthy citizens to contribute to candidates who espouse their views (a tax credit and a voucher pilot program); creating incentives for candidates to seek financial support from ordinary citizens rather than just big donors (matching funds for small contributions); and giving grassroots candidates some measure of protection from the onslaught of unlimited outside spending they may face (through an innovative People’s Fund that matches big outside spending in a way that's calculated to survive scrutiny by the Roberts Court).

As the Tea Party has proven over the past few years, grassroots organizing is not a partisan or left-right issue.  And, Congressman Sarbanes has helped prove something else: political candidates who want to pound the pavement to meet actual voters in their districts, and take positions that appeal to those voters (whether on the left or the right) rather than a narrow set of well-heeled donors and special interests, will find plenty of ordinary citizens who want to be engaged and have their voices heard.

Imagine how much louder the grassroots chorus could be if we raise the voices of average citizens, help push back on big-money donors, and give the rest of us a fighting chance.