On the verge of the most expensive election in U.S. history—and six years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision—Americans are demanding a government that is truly by the people, where every voice is heard and every vote counts.
According to a June 2015 poll by The New York Times and CBS News, 84 percent of Americans think money has too much influence in elections, and 85 percent say we must “fundamentally change” or “completely rebuild” our system for funding campaigns. Americans of every political stripe are hungry for solutions that will strip away barriers to people from all walks of life serving in elected office and rebalance the system so it works for voters, not just wealthy special interests. And the momentum behind reform is growing:
- Since 2010, more than 5 million people have signed petitions urging Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Sixteen states, the District of Columbia, more than 680 cities and towns, and a majority of the U.S. Senate in 2014 have called for an amendment.
- Since 2010, at least 23 states have enacted disclosure rules to ensure our right to know the big donors trying to influence our elections.
- States and cities have acted to pass and strengthen citizen-funded election systems to amplify the voices of small donors. In 2015 Seattle passed a first-in-the-nation system that will democratize city elections by giving every voter the opportunity to invest in campaigns, and Maine strengthened its system for citizen-funded elections. In 2016 more efforts are underway to establish campaign finance systems that prioritize small donor participation.
Heading into a major election, more than 200,000 Americans (and counting) have called on the presidential candidates to get serious about fighting big money. Hundreds of organizations spanning diverse constituencies and issue areas are preparing to turn out thousands in D.C. and across the country for direct actions, public education, and mass mobilizations. In 2016, more cities and states are expected to vote on initiatives to put people in the driver’s seat of our democracy than in any recent election.
This report shows where we’ve been and—more important—where we’re going. A combination of positive momentum from recent victories, new leadership from a broader range of constituencies, an election that will put big money front and center, and a strong, coordinated plan of action will make 2016 a critical year for pro-democracy reform. In the pages that follow, we lay out a path forward, summarize the (sometimes overlooked) victories building momentum for change, and highlight how limiting the power of big money makes a real difference in people’s lives.
The debate about the problem of money in politics is over. The question is not “if” but “when and how” we will reform our democracy. The movement for commonsense, winnable solutions is paving the way forward—to a government truly of, by, and for the people.
2016: YEAR OF ACTION
Fighting Big Money in the 2016 Election
With public opinion overwhelmingly supportive of reform measures, democracy advocacy groups have unified behind a comprehensive agenda that defines the core values and principles that should be the foundation for reform.
In 2015, the “Unity Statement of Principles,” a declaration of shared principles on money in politics reform, was released and endorsed by more than 155 groups. The Unity Statement represents the largest collection of groups ever aligned behind such an extensive set of solutions to the challenges facing our democracy.
The scores of organizations endorsing the Unity Statement recognize that there is no silver bullet in the fight to protect democracy, no single solution that will solve all of our country’s money in politics problems. Rather, each core principle is one integral piece of the solution. And though the groups that endorsed work on a wide range of issues – workers’ rights, racial justice, women’s issues, LGBT rights, faith-based advocacy, the arts, the environment, and more – this diverse collection of advocates came together around a shared recognition of our obligation to preserve representative democracy.
Based on the Unity Statement of Principles, thirteen leading democracy reform groups released the “Fighting Big Money, Empowering People: A 21st Century Democracy Agenda” which lays out five key reform areas that presidential candidates should commit to and prioritize if elected. Early in 2016, a congressional version of the agenda will be moved to all congressional campaigns as the national debate begins about how candidates will answer one simple question: If elected, what will you do, and when, to curb the power of money in politics and ensure a democracy that is of, by, and for the people, not just wealthy special interests?
The Fighting Big Money agenda calls on candidates to endorse a series of important solutions including:
- Creating a strong small-donor public financing system
- Ensuring meaningful contribution limits
- Protecting the right to vote
- Advancing campaign disclosure and transparency efforts
- Overturning Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo through the Democracy For All constitutional amendment
- Reshaping the way the U.S. Supreme Court views money in politics issues
- Making sure lawbreakers are held accountable by replacing the Federal Election Commission with a stronger agency and encouraging the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute criminal violations of campaign finance laws
Organizations in early primary states like New Hampshire Rebellion and Iowa Pays the Price have kept the pressure on presidential candidates to address the issue on the campaign trail. Since January 2014, New Hampshire Rebellion has held over 15 protest marches and mobilized thousands of citizens to walk a combined 30,000 miles throughout New Hampshire to build support for the solutions in the Fighting Big Money agenda. And, like Iowa Pays the Price, groups have deployed hundreds of citizens to candidate events demanding that the presidential candidates support comprehensive reform, and winning policy commitments from Democratic and Republican candidates. New Hampshire Rebellion publishes candidate statements on the website www.QuestionR.us.
All three Democratic presidential candidates still running in January—Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley—have released policy platforms that mirror the Fighting Big Money agenda. Several Republicans have repeatedly talked on the campaign trail about the influence of “special interests” and the influence of the “donor class,” on the campaign trail, but have only offered partial solutions such as lobbying reform and increased disclosure of political spending, though Donald Trump, Gov. John Kasich, and Gov. Chris Christie have expressed openness to more far-reaching reforms like small donor, citizen-funded elections. While he was still in the race, Sen. Lindsey Graham endorsed the concept of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
"For the first time ever, every Democratic candidate for president has publicly committed to stopping the corrupting influence of big money in politics, and Republicans are starting to embrace solutions of their own," said Daniel Weeks, director of the NH Rebellion.
Mobilizing Millions for Democracy in 2016
2016 will kick off a year of action to awaken our democracy. In every election cycle since Citizens United, more Americans have fought back against the problems they see and created more energy for the growing national democracy movement.
Several thousand people took coordinated action around the country immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in McCutcheon v. FEC in April of 2014, with 150 rallies in 41 states as a reaction to the overreach of the court. More than 15,000 Americans called their senators during the week of debate and vote in 2014 on the Democracy for All Amendment—an average of 150 calls per Senate office. And, more than 1.2 million Americans have rallied to push the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to shine a light on secret money by requiring publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending.
The increasing attention to the connections between issues in the democracy movement – and the fact that there are solutions already moving – has led to ever-increasing action by regular Americans and is ultimately leading to a mass movement for democracy.
Grassroots power will reach new heights this spring. Populist advocacy groups 99Rise and Avaaz will lead Democracy Spring, a march from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. followed by mass civil disobedience at the U.S. Capitol. Immediately after, thousands more will pour into D.C. for a three-day mobilization known as the Democracy Awakening. During these three days, April 16-18, more than 100 organizations representing a diverse array of movements and hundreds of thousands of people will come together for an array of actions, including demonstrations, concerts, teach-ins, a rally, lobbying, and more – all in support of a democracy in which votes are not denied and money doesn’t buy policy. There will also be “solidarity events” in state capitals around the country.
Examples of activities to expect during the Democracy Awakening are a massive rally on Capitol Hill, an encircling of the U.S. Capitol in a human chain to demand a Congress of Conscience that protects the right to vote, and smaller visibility events. The visibility events will “claim” iconic national monuments, K Street, and other selected buildings in Washington as places for displaying pro-democracy reform messaging. The three days will also include teach-ins, panel discussions, musical performances, activist training, and more.
2016 Campaigns Underway from Coast to Coast to Strengthen Democracy
Looking at the year ahead, opportunities to reduce the influence of big money in elections are everywhere—in local towns and communities, in city halls and state legislatures, and in the White House and in Congress. They find their support with voters from every political party, and together, they have the potential to reclaim democracy for voters in every corner of the United States. While this report does not list all opportunities for money in politics reform over the coming year, below is a snapshot of campaigns in 2016.
Moving Money in Politics Solutions at the State & Local Level:
- Colorado: In Denver, advocates are exploring a series of municipal reforms to limit the influence of big money in local elections and to empower regular voters.
- California: This November, three measures may make it to the ballot for voters’ consideration. One supports a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Another would remove the ban on public financing. The third would close secret-money loopholes for nonprofit donors by requiring disclosure of donors making a contribution of $10,000 or more. In Los Angeles, advocates are calling for the adoption of reforms recommended by the city’s Ethics Commission to strengthen the city’s public financing program. Activists in Berkeley are urging the City Council to place a similar small-donor public system on the November ballot.
- Illinois: In February 2015, 79 percent of Chicago voters approved an advisory ballot measure endorsing a plan to institute public campaign financing and limit outside contributions, beginning a legislative process that now moves to the city and state government.
- Maryland: In Howard County, Maryland, reform groups are working with local legislators to support new small donor empowerment legislation that would encourage candidates to fund their campaigns with small contributions from ordinary voters.
- Massachusetts: Transparency and public interest advocates are working on a bill to strengthen and close loopholes in Massachusetts’ campaign finance disclosure law.
- Missouri: A campaign contribution reform initiative may appear on the 2016 ballot in Missouri. The measure would establish limits on campaign contributions, prohibit contributors from concealing contribution sources, and require corporations to meet certain requirements in order to make contributions.
- New Mexico: Across New Mexico, advocates are proceeding simultaneously on state legislative and city-based campaigns. While court rulings have weakened public financing systems in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, reformers are working to strengthen these systems as well as adopt a new policy in Las Cruces. Legislative efforts on statewide public financing will also continue even after Gov. Susana Martinez’s 2013 veto of a bipartisan bill to update the system. Advocates in New Mexico also plan to continue their push for disclosure reform in the legislature.
- New York: With the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader in the New York legislature both convicted of separate corruption charges last year, efforts continue to pass public financing legislation at the state level. A push to close the state’s worst campaign finance loophole (for LLCs) will be a top priority this year. The New York legislature is also on the verge of sending a letter to Congress in support of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. A commission in Buffalo, New York is also set to make recommendations about reforming the city’s campaign finance laws.
- Oregon: Legislative and ballot efforts are being explored for 2016 and beyond to reform campaign finance laws and to create a small donor empowerment program. Oregon is one of the few states that has no statewide contribution limits.
- South Dakota: Voters will have the opportunity to vote on the South Dakota Government Accountability and Anti-Corruption Act, a proposal to prevent political bribery, improve transparency, and increase enforcement of South Dakota’s ethics laws. The measure has been certified for the November 2016 ballot.
- Washington: Washington state volunteers have submitted over 320,000 signatures to put a 2016 measure on the ballot that would urge a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. The new initiative comes on the heels of the ballot measure approved by Seattle voters to enact a citywide small donor empowerment program.
- Washington, DC: In December of 2015, six out of thirteen D.C. councilmembers joined together to introduce small donor empowerment legislation. The Citizens Fair Election Act would match small donations from voters with limited public funds for candidates that agree to turn down large contributions, giving candidates a major incentive to prioritize time with regular people over special interests and mega-donors.
In addition to the initiatives above, public interest advocates are exploring other places to enact small-donor public financing and other money in politics reforms across the country, and intend to expand the map in each successive year continuing to build this growing national movement.
One Million Americans Urge President Obama to Use the Power of Pen
In December of last year, a broad coalition of 59 organizations delivered one million petitions to President Obama, urging him to shine a light on secret money in elections by issuing an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending. Earlier in 2015, 130 congressional lawmakers took a stand on the issue, sending letters to the president that carried the same message.
Currently, fewer than a third of the 15 largest publicly traded federal contractors fully disclose the details of their contributions to nonprofit groups and trade associations – contributions that could be used for electioneering. The proposed executive order would ensure that at least 70 percent of the Fortune 100 companies disclose their political spending.
In his final State of the Union address, President Obama announced his intention to make democracy reform a central focus in his last year in office. “We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections,” President Obama said. In the same speech, the President said he intends “to travel the country” to push for democracy reforms. As this report goes to press, President Obama is “seriously considering” signing the executive order.
In addition to pushing President Obama to issue an executive order, efforts are underway to push several federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to consider political disclosure rulemakings or enforce rules that are already on the books.
Read the entire report here.