How you and your neighbors are offering an alternative to the ‘big-donor primary’
Ready is democracy program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which advocates for the public interest.
The presidential election is less than a year away and the Democratic voting begins in less than three months, but every day between now and then, the candidates are also competing in a "big-money primary."
You didn't get a ballot for the big-money primary? Don't worry, most of us don't. Here's how it works. Running for office is incredibly expensive. Unless candidates are independently wealthy, they often need to court contributions from megadonors or corporate interests to be competitive in their races. So, a very small number of people have massive influence on who runs for office — and well before any of us get a chance to cast a ballot. It's been this way for years.
But in the 2020 presidential election, there are signs that big money's grip on our democracy may be loosening. Through October, contributions of less than $200 were the single largest source of funding for the presidential candidates, according to a U.S. PIRG analysis of Federal Election Commission data. In total, candidates have raised almost $192 million in small-donor funds. That's nearly twice as much as the total contributions from big-donor-funded political action committees and other organizations. It's also nearly $100 million more than candidates had raised at the same point in the 2016 campaign.
This development has the potential to help shift our democracy. Six of the leading candidates — President Trump, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden — have each raised more than $10 million from small donors. At this point in the campaign, Sanders has raised more money from 2020 small donors than he had from all donors in 2016. With these sorts of hauls, it's clear that candidates can raise enough to run a small-donor-powered campaign.
So what's changed? There are at least two possible reasons — one technological, one cultural.
Technologically speaking, the internet has made fundraising from small donors easier than ever. With email and social media, asking a million people to contribute is as easy as asking a single person. When combined with the visibility and name recognition inherent in a presidential campaign, we may be close to peak small-donor efficiency.
But internet efficiency only explains part of the increase in giving. The culture around contributing has changed, too. Successful small-dollar fundraising creates a virtuous cycle. Candidates pointing to successful small-donor totals convincingly show how the average person is making a difference. People can see communal action adding up to something significant. In that light, pitching in $20 for the candidate of your choice seems more rational.
This isn't to say that big money doesn't still have an undemocratically large amount of influence. After all, contributions greater than $200 still account for 34 percent of all presidential campaign funds. In addition, the small-donor gains being made at the national level haven't moved down the ballot just yet. Even in high-profile, statewide campaigns like next year's Senate races in Colorado and Maine, candidates have so far raised 300 percent more money from large donors. In other words, the big-donor primary is still going strong.
That said, there are ways to reduce that influence. State and city policies, such as tax credits and matching public funds for small political contributions, can help increase this type of participation.We should continue to fight for those sorts of reforms at the federal level. In the meantime, we should celebrate the remarkable growth of small-donor power. Candidates should be accountable to, and dependent on, regular folks — not only people, special-interest groups and institutions with lots of money.
In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.