Voters Strike on Achilles Heel of Big-Money Politics

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: An attendee wears a sticker against money in politics during a rally calling for an end to corpo
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: An attendee wears a sticker against money in politics during a rally calling for an end to corporate money in politics and to mark the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, at Lafayette Square near the White House, January 21, 2015 in Washington, DC. Wednesday is the fifth anniversary of the landmark ruling, which paved the way for additional campaign money from corporations, unions and other interests and prevented the government from setting limits on corporate political spending. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It's no secret that democracy in America is hurting.

Today's presidential race is shaping up to be the most expensive in history, super PACs are flooding the airwaves with political spin at a rate of one ad every five minutes, and an exclusive set of wealthy mega-donors are pouring more money than ever into our elections, pushing everyday Americans to the sidelines. But just as an ever-shrinking club of mega-donors bites off a growing share of our political system, it seems that voters may have found the Achilles heel of big-money politics.

While big money never spoke softly in our political system, Citizens United, a 2010 Supreme Court case that decided money is speech and corporations are people, fully opened the floodgates. Citizens United allowed unlimited political spending by big businesses and mega-donors in our elections and laid the groundwork for the $100 million super PACs we see in today's presidential race, but it also set in motion a citizens' movement on a mission to undo the Court's decision and put voters in charge of our elections.

The fact that Citizens United remains intact today is in no way a reflection of the American public's desire for reform. One recent poll by Bloomberg shows that 78 percent of Americans -- including a majority of voters at both ends of the political spectrum -- believe that Citizens United should be overturned. While 16 states and nearly 700 localities have passed resolutions supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the challenges presented by passing such an amendment and the well-funded special interests that oppose reversing Citizens United have combined to dress big-money politics in a seemingly impenetrable body of armor.

But this year, voters found a chink. In Maine and Seattle, residents have won major election reforms that help to fight the influence of big money. In an overwhelming vote this November, Seattle residents passed a clean elections ballot initiative to create a first-in-the-nation voter empowerment program that reduces the influence of special interest groups in local elections and puts the power to fund elections in the hands of regular Seattleites. Voters in Maine came away with a similar victory, approving a ballot initiative to strengthen their state's clean elections program after court decisions had weakened it.

Shortly after these victories, a fierce and immediate public outcry in Connecticut successfully stopped an attempt by some lawmakers to cut funds for the state's landmark Citizens' Election Program. Most recently, District of Columbia Councilmembers -- backed by citizen activists -- proposed new legislation to empower D.C. voters and limit the impact of big money in local elections.

While each of these states or localities has taken a slightly different approach to election reform, the basic mechanism behind each program is similar. Candidates who turn down big money are given an opportunity to run competitive campaigns by relying on small donors and regular voters to fund their race.

While small donor empowerment programs don't overturn Citizens United, they do give candidates who choose to turn down big checks, or lack access to a network of wealthy donors and special interests, a way to win elected office. Making small donations matter also lifts the voices of regular voters that are currently being drowned out by the roar of mega-donor-backed super PACs.

These programs have a track record of success in places like New York, where local candidates have relied on the city's small donor empowerment program to raise 61 percent of their contributions from small donations and matching funds. Prior to this year's ballot initiative in Maine and previous court decisions that weakened the state's clean elections system, Maine's program saw similar success. There, 81 percent of state legislative candidates, including members of both parties, used the program to fund their campaigns without large donors or special interests.

U.S. PIRG's own analysis shows that a small donor empowerment program would have a powerful impact at the national level, encouraging presidential candidates to rely on regular voters for contributions rather than mega-donors and special interests.

This fall, voters proved that regular Americans can stand up to big-money politics and win. They're proving that small donor empowerment programs can fundamentally change our elections, refocusing candidates on the people they're running to represent rather than big donors and corporations.

Overturning Citizens United remains a long-term fight that can and must be won to reduce the influence of special interests and put voters back in control of our elections. But as super PACS circle the walls of our government, dragging behind them the shredded remnants of laws once used to protect our democracy from special interests, clean election supporters have finally found big money's weak spot -- people power.