Campaign Finance Reform: Basic Principles

Because this hearing reflects an initial look at ideas for campaign finance reform, it seems appropriate to start with some foundational principles that may help provide a framework for discussion. Much discussion about campaign finance reform proposals around the country is devoted to examining how a particular reform will affect the fortunes of a particular political party; how it might affect candidates; how it will affect donors. I would like to suggest a different framework for analyzing proposed reforms that developed out of my experience with the National Voting Rights Institute and the work we did around the country to help promote the understanding of campaign finance reform as a basic voting rights and civil rights issue. A standard that NVRI and many other groups and advocates decided to incorporate into their work became known as the “Fannie Lou Hamer” standard.

The Fannie Lou Hamer standard recalls the Mississippi civil rights leader who challenged the nation to get serious about fighting segregation and the exclusion of people of color from the political process. Under the standard, you determine if a reform is real by asking “Does this reform make the process fairer for someone like Fannie Lou Hamer” – a passionate leader, a person of color but without access to wealth, without high-level connections, whose influence depends on the strength of her ideas and the rightness of her cause. Asking how a proposed reform measures up against that standard puts the right framework in place, because it brings the discussion back to how a reform advances the responsiveness of government to the citizens it serves, a core goal of democracy.

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