Chicago Voters Can Strike Blow Against Big Money in Politics

Co-written with Abraham Scarr, Director of Illinois PIRG

Our democracy is built on the core principle of a government of the people, by the people and for the people, where all of us get an equal say over who gets elected and the government decisions that affect our lives. But the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision has put that core principle at risk, and has made it even easier for a few mega-donors and corporations to influence who runs for office, what issues make it on to their agenda, and far too often, who wins our elections.

The role of big money in elections has been a hot topic in Illinois in recent months. On the heels of the most expensive Governor's race in history, where Bruce Rauner contributed $28 million to his own campaign, we now have the Chicago mayoral election, where Rahm Emanuel's breathtaking hauls - 89 percent of which comes from donors giving more than $1,000 - easily dwarf his competitors combined fundraising totals.

What's most dangerous about this flood of big money is that much of it comes from just a tiny number of large donors, who are able to drown out the voices of the rest of us.

We've seen evidence of this on the federal level, where in 2012 just 32 mega-donors - giving $9 million each on average - contributed as much money to Super PACs supporting Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as the nearly 4 million small donors gave to their campaigns combined.

In Illinois, where campaign contribution limits were lifted in both the gubernatorial and Chicago mayoral elections, mega-donors don't even have to funnel their money into Super PACs to have an outsized influence on our elections.

According to an Illinois PIRG analysis of fundraising reports of individual contributions to candidates through December (the end of the last full reporting period), just 1.7 percent of money contributed to all mayoral candidates combined has come from individuals giving less than $150. In contrast, 86 percent of money raised has come from individuals giving more than $1,000.

While those figures are skewed by Rahm Emanuel's fundraising, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of the money raised in the race, the figures do not improve much when you pull his fundraising out. Counting only contributions to the other four candidates, 9 percent of the money contributed came from small donors, while 57 percent came from donors giving more than $1,000.

Fortunately, there is a strong and growing movement to overturn the Citizens United decision and reverse the wrong-headed ruling that money is speech and corporations are people. Already 16 states - including Illinois - and over 600 communities have gone on the record calling for a constitutional amendment to do exactly that.

There are also proven policies to amplify the voices of ordinary citizens.

Tuesday, voters in Chicago have the opportunity to weigh in on an advisory question that asks whether we should reduce the influence of big donors by adopting small donor matching programs to finance elections.

As members of Fair Elections Illinois, we encourage all voters to vote yes for a small donor democracy.

Programs to empower small donors with tax credits and matching funds have proven successful. New York City has such a program for its city council campaigns, and in 2013, small donors were responsible for 61 percent of participating candidates' contributions, when funds from the matching program are included. Compare that to less than 2 percent this year in Chicago. All but two winning candidates participated in New York City's small donor program, showing that candidates are able to raise the money they need to win without looking outside their districts for large-dollar contributions.

New York City has shown that the program can work, and after Montgomery County, Maryland, voted to adopt a similar program this fall, there is momentum for change. Many communities in Illinois and around the country are now actively considering adopting these programs and a bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to adopt similar policies for congressional races. Senator Durbin also introduced a similar bill in the last Congress.

The need for solutions is clear, just ask any of the increasing number of citizens turned off by a democracy that appears unresponsive to their needs and interests. Thankfully, we have solutions if we choose to use them. Chicago voters should seize this opportunity by voting yes for a small donor democracy.