Election Day 2014 is more than eight weeks away, but one winner can already be declared: Big Money.
According to the election spending watchdog website OpenSecrets.org, U.S. House and Senate candidates have already raked in more than $1.1 billion for the 2013-2014 cycle. On top of that, more than $364 million has already been spent by outside groups, with almost half -- $142 million -- coming from groups that don't have to disclose their donors, leading some to call this the "Dark Money Election."
By all accounts, the public is wary of Big Money's growing political clout at the expense of everyday voters. A recent poll from the Democratic polling firm Democracy Corps was typical in finding that a strong majority of likely voters in 12 U.S. Senate battleground states believe the flood of super PAC spending is "wrong and leads to our elected officials representing the views of wealthy donors."
But what can be done to stem Big Money's influence? Many are skeptical of the possibility of reform, especially in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, which loosened rules on how much individuals, businesses and unions can spend on elections.
Yet in the wake of the court's decisions -- and spurred to action by the deluge of cash flooding into elections -- reformers are regrouping, pushing an innovative and diverse set of initiatives to curb Big Money in politics.
The most ambitious of these efforts is a U.S. Senate bill that will come up for a vote next week proposing a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions. The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and scheduled for a vote on Sept. 8, would authorize Congress and states to regulate fundraising and spending for federal candidates.
Why the push for a constitutional amendment, which would need 66 votes in the U.S. Senate (the bill now counts 50 supporters) and ratification by three-quarters of the states? For one, many reformers believe that -- given the current U.S. Supreme Court's hostility to campaign finance regulation -- only a change to the Constitution itself can rein in runaway special-interest spending.
As Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in explaining the vote:
The Supreme Court is trying to take this country back to the days of the robber barons, allowing dark money to flood our elections. That needs to stop, and it needs to stop now.
Despite the campaign's long odds, the amendment push has proved to be a useful educational and organizing tool for reformers. Groups including Common Cause, CREDO, MoveOn.org Political Action, People for the American Way and Public Citizen -- along with allies at the state and local level -- have collected more than 3 million petition signatures in favor of the amendment, and more than 500 states and localities have passed resolutions in support.
"There is incredible grassroots momentum to overturn decisions like Citizens United," said Marge Baker of People For the American Way in a statement this week. "The growing energy shows that this is only the beginning of the push to make the Democracy for All Amendment our Constitution’s 28th Amendment."
The People's Pledge
Given the obsctacles to passing such an amendment, reformers have turned to another approach to stop the flood of election money in 2014: the People's Pledge.
The People's Pledge idea was pioneered in 2012 by Massachusetts U.S. Senate candidates Scott Brown, a Republican, and Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat. Facing an onslaught of outside spending, Brown and Warren vowed to "work together to limit the influence of third party advertisements." Specifically, both campaigns agreed that every time an outside group spent money on a TV spot or other election-related advertising the candidate that benefited would voluntarily pay an amount equal to half the cost of the ad to a charity of the opposing candidate's choice.
The Brown/Warren People's Pledge was wildly successful: Even though outside spending is supposedly not coordinated with campaigns, no independent groups aired TV ads on behalf of either candidate. According to a report by Common Cause Massachusetts, the outside money that was spent was eclipsed by support from more modest contributors: Small donations outmatched spending by outside groups by a 3-to-1 margin.
This year, advocates say that at least 13 candidates have agreed to some form of the People's Pledge for upcoming races this November. In Georgia, Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn has called on her opponents Rep. Jack Kingston and David Perdue to agree to a "Peach State Pledge." According to the Center for Public Integrity, the Senate race in Georgia has been the country's most expensive, with more than $22.5 million spent on TV ads alone, $8 million of that from outside groups.
Nunn's statement called for all candidates in the race to "refuse spending by outside groups":
In many cases, these [outside] groups will never be forced to disclose who is backing them -- preventing Georgians from seeing who is trying to influence our election ... I believe we have an opportunity to send a message to Washington. If we can join together and pledge to limit outside spending and third party ads, we can together show that the people of our state are tired of politics as usual. That message isn't exclusively a Democratic message or a Republican message, it's just common sense.
Proponents of the pledge say Nunn is right about its bipartisan appeal. An August 2014 poll conducted by Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm, found that 68 percent of likely voters in November 2014 are favorable to the People's Pledge, including 64 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of independents. Most surprisingly, the poll found that nearly half of the voters surveyed would be more likely to vote for a candidate who signs such a pledge, including 41 percent of GOP voters and 44 percent of registered independents.
Fighting Money With Money
There's another reform approach that's gaining steam: Using money to change the money-drenched political system. The most visible of these efforts is Mayday PAC, the so-called "super PAC to end all super PACs" launched by charismatic Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig.
With the backing of more than 50,000 supporters, including big names like Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak and actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and George Takei, Mayday PAC had raised $7.8 million by August.
Lessig's PAC has announced it will use that money to run ads this year to support seven congressional candidates who back campaign finance reform. Five of the seven have been announced, including three Democrats -- Staci Appel, who's running in Iowa's 3rd district; Ruben Gallego, running in Arizona's 7th; and Carol Shea-Porter, the incumbent in New Hampshire's 1st -- and two Republicans -- Walter Jones, who represents North Carolina's 3rd district, and Jim Rubens, a U.S. Senate candidate from New Hampshire.
The endorsement of Jones demonstrates the PAC's desire to go beyond backing the usual suspects and to puncture the idea that campaign finance reform is only for Democrats. Jones called Citizens United "one of the worst decisions by the Supreme Court in my adult lifetime." Jones is also an original co-sponsor of the Government by the People Act, a bill that would give Congressional candidates a public grant to run their campaigns if they raise money from small donors and agree to fundraising and spending limits.
Building on their targeted work in seven races this year, Mayday PAC's ultimate goal is to help elect enough members of Congress -- and lobby them once in office -- to ensure passage of such a public financing plan, leading to "fundamental reform in the way elections are funded," which Lessig believes they can accomplish as early as 2017.
Lessig thinks such a "clean elections" plan -- which has been used successfully in states including Arizona, Maine and North Carolina -- can succeed because it doesn't focus on limiting big donations but on incentivizing small donors to participate and have more voice. He sees parallels between the South's troubled history of "white primaries," which excluded African Americans from deciding who would be on the ballot for various elections, and today's "green primaries," which privilege the clout and influence of Big Money donors. As Lessig said in an interview with Salon:
The first critical stage of deciding who are going to be the representatives -- mainly the fundraising to fund the campaigns -- has essentially excluded not 15 percent of the American public [as were excluded in the "white primaries"] but basically 99 percent of the American public. So what we need to first do is get that vast majority of Americans to recognize that they have been disenfranchised in a critical way by the devices we've used to fund campaigns.
It's an ambitious plan, but Lessig thinks the staggering sums of money being poured into elections has provoked public backlash and created a unique moment for reform. As he told National Journal:
I'm fortunately picking this up at a point in time when America is really ripe to do something ... I'm doing my part in the middle of a tinderbox. It doesn't take much to get people going on this.