News. Debate. Community. Levers for a better democracy.
Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images

"Candidates should be accountable to, and dependent on, regular folks — not only people, special-interest groups and institutions with lots of money," argues Joe Ready.

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.

We’re all about the issues that have broken American democracy — and efforts to make governments work again for you, your family and your friends.
Washington Bureau/Getty Images

The House on Friday passed legislation to restore a provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The bill would require advance approval of voting changes in states with a history of discrimination. Here President Lyndon Johnson shares one of the pens he used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Passage of historic voting rights law takes a partisan turn

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.

Keep reading... Show less
Big Picture

TV stations fight FCC over political ad disclosure

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.

Keep reading... Show less
News. Community. Debate. Levers for better democracy.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter.

1952 Eisenhower Answers America

On TV, political ads are regulated – but online, anything goes

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.

Keep reading... Show less
© Issue One. All rights reserved.