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Small Donors Could Change Imbalance of Power

Bob Herbert

This effort could be a game-changer, a way to begin reversing the dangerous concentration of wealth and political power in the U.S. Naysayers will complain that proposals like this are doomed from the start because of the current makeup of Congress, especially the House. But that’s not so. Enhancing the impact of small donors is an important component of a broad, long-term effort to reduce the toxic impact of big money in an era of super PACS, Citizens United and rising inequality. Democrats in the House should be commended for pushing this initiative along. The public overwhelmingly supports major changes to our broken system.

A word of caution: House Democrats need to be scrupulous in tailoring their bill to small donors. Matching higher contributions, like $400 or $500, that are beyond most voters’ means would reduce the chances of bringing about the change we need. Fewer than one-half of 1 percent of Americans contributed even $200 or more to a federal candidate in 2012. For most African-American and Latino voters, giving even $50 or $100 is a heavy lift.

The goal should be to draw in the extremely large numbers of voters who can afford just a small amount, say $100 or less, and then expand the impact of those small donations with a significant match, like the current 6-to-1 match in New York City, or even higher. You want to get congressional candidates and others knocking on doors in neighborhoods they previously overlooked. You want to bring more blacks and Latinos into the mix. (The increasing importance of those voters can hardly be overstated.) When all is said and done, you want both the electorate and the donor pool to look more like America. What you don’t want is to allow the United States, the world symbol of freedom and democracy, to sink into the quicksand of oligarchy.