Testimony to the US Senate, "The State of Civil and Human Rights in the United States"

Testimony to the US Senate, "The State of Civil and Human Rights in the United States"

December 8, 2014

Demos is a national, non-partisan, non-profit public policy organization working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy.

Demos’ lawyers and researchers have extensive legal and policy expertise on the subjects of civil rights, voting rights, and money in politics. In our forthcoming report, Stacked Deck: How the Racial Bias in our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy, we examine the distorting influence of money in politics and how it undermines our nation’s decades-long struggle for racial equity. Drawing from this research, we conclude that our big money political system is a civil rights issue because it privileges the views of a wealthy donor class that is largely white; contributes to a disturbing lack of representation for communities of color in Congress and other legislative bodies; and leads to destructive policies that disproportionately affect people of color.

Despite a current Supreme Court majority hostile to common-sense rules limiting the use of big money in politics, a better world is possible. Matching small political contributions with public funds, transforming the Supreme Court’s approach to money in politics or amending the Constitution to permit more robust equality-focused campaign finance reforms, and community-based organizing efforts to combat the influence of private money in politics can enhance the ability of ordinary citizens—from every race and class—to enjoy the ultimate promise of citizenship: a meaningful say over the policies that shape our lives.


A. Description of the Problem

A significant majority of campaign money at the federal and state levels comes from less than 1 percent of the population who make large contributions of $1,000 or more (“the donor class”).1 The small cohort of wealthy donors is overwhelmingly white. For example, more than 90 percent of federal contributions in the 2012 election cycle that were $200 or more came from neighborhoods that were mostly white.2 In contrast, research shows that there is significant racial diversity among small donors.3

This is important for policy because the donor class tends to hold policy preferences that diverge from those of people of color, whose views are more similar to the general public.4 For example, when asked whether it’s more important to create jobs or hold down the deficit, people of color agree with lower-income Americans that creating jobs is the clear priority, whereas the wealthy have the opposite view.5

When elections are primarily funded by wealthy, white donors, candidates as a whole are less likely to prioritize the needs of people of color.6 Candidates of color also are less likely to run for elected office, raise less money when they do, and are less likely to win. For example, candidates of color raised 47 percent less money than white candidates in 2006 state legislative races.7 Additionally, 90 percent of our elected officials are white, despite the fact that people of color are 37 percent of the U.S. population.8

Ultimately, the dominance of big money in our politics ultimately diminishes the ability of people of color to influence policy and effectively advocate for their interests through the give-and-take of the political process—central components of democracy and the power that gives meaning to the right to vote.

Moreover, this interest is linked to larger voting rights issues because, to build a fair and inclusive democracy, we need to reduce the role of money and increase the influence of people. As we see with the Roberts Court’s decisions in Citizens United, McCutcheon, and Shelby County, the fundamental concept of “one person, one vote” and statutory protections against voter discrimination are under attack. The people whose votes are most easily suppressed are the most socially and economically marginalized voters.9 Increasing the barriers to the franchise reduces their turnout disproportionately. Voter restriction measures thereby translate the economic gap between rich and poor into a political gap between donors and voters; they allow wealthy people to control the political system the way they currently control the economy. The rapid increase of voter ID legislation introduced and passed at the state level is one such manifestation.10 The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which receives much of its funding from wealthy business interests, played a significant role in drafting template voter ID bill language that was used in a number of states, before the group disbanded its Voter ID Task Force in 2012.11

As illustrated in the case study summaries in Section III, our big money political system harms people of color in two distinct ways. First, where wealthy donor and corporate interests diverge significantly from those of working families on economic policies such as the minimum wage, people of color are disproportionately affected because a larger percentage are poor or working class. Second, and more profoundly, our nation’s legacy of racism and persistently racialized politics depresses the political power of people of color, creating opportunities for targeted exploitation as seen in the subprime lending crisis and the mass incarceration boom, and our big money political system makes it prohibitively difficult for communities of color to effectively use the political process to protect their interests.


The pathway to a fairer country is through a stronger democracy. A key to promoting economic mobility and racial justice for people of color is to give these communities more say over the decisions that affect their daily lives.

To accomplish this we need to both curb the influence of the wealthy, white “donor class” and amplify the voices of all Americans, including people of color, so that elected officials will listen to and work for all of their constituents, not just a privileged few. This requires reclaiming our Constitution from a runaway Supreme Court, for which a system that matches small political contributions with public funds will enhance this effort.

A. Restoring Our Constitution

In cases such as Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United v. FEC, and McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court has stepped in to dismantle democratically-enacted policies intended to prevent wealthy interests from translating economic might directly into political power.

We can transform the Supreme Court’s approach to money in politics such that the Court overturns its own bad decisions—just as the justices have reversed course on New Deal economic protections, racial segregation, LGBT rights, and more. We can accomplish this by developing and promoting robust interpretive frameworks that go beyond fighting corruption as compelling values that our Constitution protects; mobilizing allies across the political spectrum and within the legal community to support these ideas; ensuring that newly appointed justices share the public’s common-sense understanding of the role that money should play in our electoral system; passing cutting- edge laws at the state and local levels; and fighting back in the courts to establish an enduring interpretation of the Constitution that empowers the people to pass sensible limits on the use of big money. Alternatively, we can amend the Constitution to clarify that the people have the power to rein in the influence of big money.

B. Matching Small Contributions with Public Funds

The best way to encourage candidates to listen to constituents and help people of color have their voices heard in the political process is to match small contributions with public funds. For example, studies of New York City’s matching system and similar grant-based systems in Arizona and Connecticut have shown that such programs can significantly increase the diversity of the donor base and help more candidates of color run for office and win elections.12

Further, matching small contributions by a six-to-one or more ratio, as well as providing a voucher or tax credit to small donors, can encourage millions of Americans to participate through $25 or $50 contributions that actually matter, providing the incentive for candidates to reach out to—and listen to—average voters, not just big donors.13

The Fair Elections Now Act (S.2023), sponsored by Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights Chair Senator Dick Durbin, and the Government By the People Act (H.R.20) are leading proposals to bring a small donor matching system to the federal level.14 These bills have been endorsed by the NAACP and deserve their fair consideration.15


The following brief case study summaries illustrate how our big money political system has had a tremendous and disproportionate affect on people of color in the United States. The final two studies tell the story of how fairer election systems and good organizing in communities of color can lead to real progress. See our forthcoming report, Stacked Deck: How the Racial Bias in our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy, for the full detailed stories.

  • Private Prisons and Incarceration. Incarceration in the U.S. has increased by 500 percent over the past three decades, with people of color vastly overrepresented in our nation’s prisons and jails.16 This is the result of policies that have boosted the bottom line of the growing private prison industry by putting more people in jail for longer sentences despite dropping crime rates. Even more directly illustrating the problematic link between money in politics and the diminishment of basic civil liberties, simply the threat of increased spending in a judicial election by corporations and unions is correlated with a 7 percent decline in how frequently judges vote in favor of criminal defendants.17 Moreover, as more people go through the prison system, they face collateral consequences—such as voting disenfranchisement, reduced employment prospects, and lack of access to fair housing—that both are important civil benefits and factors related to recidivism.18

  • The Subprime Lending Crisis. Because of rampant discriminatory lending practices, the subprime-lending crisis hit people of color especially hard. Banks and other mortgage lenders used millions of dollars of political contributions and lobbying to weaken and circumvent consumer-friendly regulations, resulting in the largest loss of wealth in communities of color in American history.19

  • The Minimum Wage. The federal minimum wage has remained stagnant, losing real value over the past several decades. Raising the wage to $10.10 an hour would lift more than 3.5 million workers of color out of poverty, but Congress has instead prioritized policies favored by the wealthy.20

  • Paid Sick Leave. The U.S. is one of the only prosperous democracies that does not guarantee even minimal paid sick leave to all employees, which would improve public health and disproportionately benefit Latino workers.21 A paid sick leave proposal was bottled up in the Connecticut legislature until the state passed a “fair elections” system that enabled candidates to run for office without depending upon wealthy donors and special interests. Following this change, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to guarantee paid sick leave.22

  • Voting Rights in Minnesota. TakeAction Minnesota recently demonstrated how organizing in communities of color can help defeat restrictions on the freedom to vote. Now, as they turn to expanding the franchise for formerly incarcerated people, TakeAction and its allies are building power for a multi-year strategy that connects voting rights and money in politics, breaking down silos and continuing to build the movement for a fairer and more inclusive democracy.


Through our current big money campaign finance regime, the small, overwhelmingly white donor class exerts vastly disproportionate influence over policy in the United States. This occurs both because candidates of all races are more likely to prioritize the concerns of the wealthy white donor class, as well as because the need to raise large sums of money acts as a barrier to fair representation for candidates and communities of color. Similar in effect to burdensome laws that restrict access to the ballot, the outsized role of big money in politics is a compelling civil and voting rights issue. Both offend the fundamental principal of “one person, one vote,” which requires equal representation regardless of race or wealth.

Fundamental change, of course, is always difficult to achieve, but momentum is growing. The silver lining of the Supreme Court’s extreme interventions on money in politics has been unprecedented public awareness and concern. A growing list of civil rights, environmental, workers’ rights and other advocacy organizations are coming together to embrace the insight that enacting transformative change around their first priority issues—around the various civil rights that they seek to promote—requires strengthening our democracy and reducing the role of big money. Public support for common sense solutions remains exceptionally strong across party and ideological lines. There have been important recent victories, with the prospects for bigger wins on the horizon. Together, these factors provide real cause for optimism in the face of a daunting problem.

  1. Adam Lioz, The Role of Money in the 2002 Congressional Elections, U.S. PIRG EDUC. FUND, 15 (2003), http://uspirgorg.live.pubintnet-dev.org/sites/pirg/files/reports/Role_of....
  2. Jack Gillum & Luis Alonso Lugo, Minorities Donating Little to Presidential Races, ASSOCIATED PRESS (Nov. 3, 2012), http://bigstory.ap.org/article/minorities-donating-little-presidential-r....
  3. See, e.g., Michael J. Malbin et al., Small Donors, Big Democracy: New York City's Matching Funds As A Model for the Nation and States, 11 ELECTION L.J. 3, 13 (2012) (describing the increase in donor diversity in the 2009 New York City elections); CLEAN ELECTIONS INSTITUTE, Reclaiming Democracy in Arizona: How Clean Elections has expanded the universe of campaign contributors 3 (2004), http://www.followthemoney.org/assets/press/Reports/200409301.pdf; Nancy Watzman, All Over the Map: Small Donors Bring Diversity to Arizona’s Elections, PUBLIC CAMPAIGN 1-2 (2008), http://www.washclean.org/Library/AOTM_AZ08_Rpt.pdf; J. Mijin Cha & Miles Rapoport, Fresh Start: The Impact of Public Financing in Connecticut, DEMOS 2 (2013), http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/FreshStart_PublicF....
  4. See generally Benjamin I. Page et al., Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans, 11 PERSP. ON POLS. 51, 55-56 (2013) (showing diverging viewpoints of the very wealthy from the general public), available at http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~jnd260/cab/CAB2012%20-%20Page1.pdf.
  5. July 2012 Post-ABC Election Poll, WASH. POST (July 16, 2012), http://www.washingtonpost.com/page/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2012/07/10/N... Politics/Polling/question_5646.xml?uuid=nREzWspDEeGNIUXuYXpxKg.
  6. See generally Paul Blumenthal, Chris Murphy: Soul-Crushing’ Fundraising is Bad for Congress, HUFFINGTON POST (May 7, 2013) (quoting a representative who explained how his continual focus on wooing big-money donors skewed his views on policy), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/07/chris- murphy-fundraising_n_3232143.html.
  7. Laura Merrifield Albright, Not Simply Black and White: The Relationship between Race/Ethnicity and Campaign Finance in State Legislative Elections (Aug. 4, 2014), http://ssrn.com/abstract=2475889.
  8. See Women Donors Network, Who Leads Us?, http://wholeads.us/.
  9. Sarah Childress, Why Voter ID Laws Aren’t Really About Fraud, PBS FRONTLINE (Oct. 20, 2014), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/government-elections-politics/wh... about-fraud/.
  10. Kara Brandeisky, Hanquing Chen and Mike Tigas, Everything’s That’s Happened Since Supreme Court Ruled on Voting Rights Act, PROPUBLICA (Nov. 4, 2014), http://www.propublica.org/article/voting-rights- by-state-map.
  11. PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY, ALEC: The Voice of Special Corporate Interests in State Legislatures, http://www.pfaw.org/rww-in-focus/alec-the-voice-of-corporate-special-int... legislatures#Who; Adam Sorensen, ALEC Scraps Gun Law, Voter-ID Task Force, TIME MAGAZINE (Apr. 17, 2012), http://swampland.time.com/2012/04/17/alec-scraps-gun-law-voter-id-task-f....
  12. See supra note iii.
  13. Id.
  14. Government by the People Act of 2014, H.R. 20, 113th Cong. (2014); Fair Elections Now Act, S.2023, 113th Cong. (2014), https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/senate-bill/2023.
  15. Letter from Alliance For Justice et al. to Congress (Feb. 12, 2014), http://campaignmoney.org/files/2- 14SenateSignOnLetter.pdf.
  16. THE SENTENCING PROJECT, Incarceration, http://www.sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=107.
  18. THE SENTENCING PROJECT, Felony Disenfranchisement, http://www.sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=133; THE PEW CHARITABLE TRUSTS, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility (Sept. 28, 2010), http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/0001/01/01/col... Stephen Raphael and Rudolf Winter-Ebner, Identifying the Effect of Employment on Crime, JOURNAL OF LAW AND ECONOMICS, Vol. 44, No. 1 (April 2001), pp. 259-283.
  19. See Paul Taylor et al., Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics, PEW RESEARCH CENTER (2011), http://ehub29.webhostinghub.com/~busine87/assignments/business_statistics_- _wealt.pdf.
  20. See RESTAURANT OPPORTUNITIES CENTERS UNITED, Realizing The Dream: How the Minimum Wage Impacts Racial Equity in the Restaurant Industry and in America (2013), http://www.scribd.com/doc/161953370/Realizing-The-Dream-How-the-Minimum-... Equity-in-the-Restaurant-Industry-and-in-America.
  21. JODY HEYMANN ET AL., INSTITUTE FOR HEALTH AND SOCIAL POLICY AT MCGILL UNIVERSITY, THE WORK, FAMILY, AND EQUITY INDEX HOW DOES THE UNITED STATES MEASURE UP? 5, http://www.mcgill.ca/files/ihsp/WFEI2007FEB.pdf; INSTITUTE FOR WOMEN’S POLICY RESEARCH, Paid Sick Days Access in the U.S.: Differences by Race/Ethnicity, Occupation, Earnings, and Work Schedule (Mar. 2014), http://www.iwpr.org/publications/pubs/paid-sick-days-access-in-the-unite... by-race-ethnicity-occupation-earnings-and-work-schedule/at_download/file.
  22. Chad Garland, Gov. Jerry Brown signs bill to require paid sick leave, LOS ANGELES TIMES (Sept. 10, 2014), http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-brown-paid-sick-leave-20140911-sto... Stephen Singer, Connecticut 1st state to require paid sick time, WASHINGTON POST (July 5, 2011), http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/connecticut-1st-state-to-... time/2011/07/05/gIQAU9S1zH_story.html.