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Howard Dean and Barack Obama pioneered the drive for small-dollar contributors. Now, such donations have become an important measuring stick and may be contributing to increased polarization.

Small-dollar gifts hardly a cure-all for money’s smear on politics, one professor argues

The explosion of small-donor political contributions is often celebrated and extolled as one of the few positive developments amid all the problems facing the democracy reform movement.

Not so fast, argues New York University law school professor Richard Pildes. In a new essay published in the Yale Law Journal Forum, he argues the proliferation of modest contributions to candidates may be contributing to more political polarization and, at least, requires more careful examination.

Pildes also says the proposals to promote more small-donor giving that are part of the House Democrats' comprehensive political process overhaul, known as HR 1, could have unintended negative consequences.

"Small donors are seen as purifying forces who will reduce political corruption and the influence of large donors, make politics more responsive to the 'average' citizen and encourage more widespread political participation," he writes in describing the surge in online giving to presidential and congressional candidates in amounts below $200, the cutoff for full disclosure of a donor's identity.

"While we now worry about whether democracy writ large can survive the internet, many think the internet can guide us toward salvation when it comes to the role of money in elections," he wrote. "The question posed here is whether the concerns that have emerged about the internet and democracy should suddenly disappear when it comes to fundraising, or whether we need to reflect more on how those same concerns might also apply to the internet's empowerment of small donors.

The increase in the number of people giving small amounts is a fairly recent phenomenon, beginning in 2004 with Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and then growing dramatically in Barack Obama's two campaigns.

In time for last year's midterm elections, the small-donor phenomenon expanded to congressional races, with Democratic candidates benefitting more than Republicans. Democratic Senate candidates raised more than a quarter of their funds from small givers and the party's House candidates raised 16 percent of their cash that way.

Much of the credit goes ActBlue, a Democratic-backing online giving platform, which Republicans have now replicated with WinRed.

Pildes points out that the number of small donors has now become a criteria that Democratic presidential candidates must meet in order to qualify for televised debates. But, he says, it actually costs some of these candidates more to attract these small donors than the amount they raise.

Of greater concern, he said, is whether the growth in small donors contributes to political polarization. One major study, he said, found that small donors contribute more to ideologically extreme candidates than did other individual donors.

For the professor, one worrying aspect of the House-passed but Senate-stymied HR 1 — and similar proposals made by some Democratic presidential candidates — is the idea of providing federal matching funds to candidates based on their success with small-dollar contributions. Doing that, he argued, could exacerbate the negative impact of small giving.

He concludes that proponents of small donations are so focused on one dimension of a problem that they "can develop tunnel vision that obscures the costs of their reforms along other dimensions of democracy."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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