A decade has passed since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that opened the door to unlimited corporate money and unrestricted outside spending in our elections. By now, the problem is all too familiar. We have seen an explosion of political spending fueled by a small and wealthy elite.
Since Citizens United paved the way for SuperPACs in 2010, they have spent more than $4.5 billion — over $1 billion of which came from just 11 individual donors. In the 2016 cycle, total political spending surpassed $6 billion, and in 2020, we’re heading toward what is likely to be the most expensive election in American history.
After years of a seemingly never-ending big money arms race, it is easy to be cynical about the prospects for campaign finance reform, particularly with a Republican Senate and White House and a conservative Supreme Court committed to protecting the corrupt status quo. But focusing only on the role of the federal government misses the full picture.
The roadmap to fixing our corrupt political system runs through our states and cities, and there is reason for optimism.
Fighting Back at the State and City Level
Since the Citizens United decision, nearly a dozen cities, states, and counties have passed meaningful campaign finance reforms that provide us with innovative models for combatting big money’s influence on our elections.
In 2015, Seattle voters passed a novel approach to funding city campaigns by approving a “democracy voucher” program, which provides every eligible Seattle resident with four $25 vouchers to donate to candidates of their choosing, thus diluting the importance of big money donors.
Also in 2015, voters in Maine overwhelmingly passed a campaign finance ballot initiative that reinvigorated its statewide system of “clean elections,” which provides campaign grants to state candidates, enabling them to run for office without relying on a single large donor.
One model for combating big money that’s garnering momentum is small-dollar matching funds, which elevate the voices of small donors. In 2016, for example, Berkeley voters passed a system that matches all donations under $50 at a 6:1 ratio — so a $50 contribution becomes $350 for the candidate ($50 + $300 in city matching funds). This approach incentivizes candidates to run grassroots-funded campaigns and spend their time with voters, instead of big donors. In 2019, NYC voters strengthened their program by increasing the city’s small-dollar match to an 8-to-1 ratio, and in a historic step last year, the New York Legislature passed the first statewide small-dollar matching program in the country.
Small-dollar matching is gaining steam. In the past few years, Portland, OR; Denver, CO; Washington D.C.; Howard and Montgomery Counties in Maryland, and Suffolk County in New York have also passed it.
These local and state wins aren’t just “feel good” moments for reform. They’re having an immediate impact on how campaigns are run, and they’re creating models for federal reform. After Seattle passed democracy vouchers, small donations made up 87% of funding for candidates, compared to 48% before. After Berkeley passed a 6-to-1 small-dollar match, 71% of candidates participated in the system and their reliance on large donors plummeted. New York City has had a small-dollar matching program for over thirty years, and it’s led to a measurable increase in small donations from a diverse set of donors.
States and cities have long played a leading role in the history of social and political progress in America. They are the laboratories for reform, where seemingly risky public policies are tested, and they can be the engines for political change, where momentum and pressure for federal reform build. Whether it was marriage equality or a higher minimum wage, we have seen time and again that cities and states must act before the federal government has the courage to follow suit, and the same holds true for campaign finance reform.
To be clear, the federal government has an important role to play in overturning Citizens United. Reversing the decision would require a constitutional amendment or new Supreme Court Justices willing to revisit and reverse the toxic ruling. A constitutional amendment would need to be ratified by three-quarters of the states, which is hard to imagine in the foreseeable future. But, a Democratic president with a Democratic Senate could put anti-Citizens United judges on the bench, who could reverse the ruling. Without a Democratic Senate and White House, there is no path to reversing Citizens United, so the issue is very much on the ballot this year.
While overturning Citizens United would help stem the flow of outside political spending, comprehensive reform requires not only restricting outside money, but changing how we fund our campaigns in the first place. Cities and states are showing us how to do just that. In 2020, voters and lawmakers in Arizona, Alaska, Maryland, Oregon, Philadelphia, and other cities and states will consider critical reforms, from small-dollar matching to lower contribution limits. They should seize the opportunity to strengthen our elections and build momentum for national reform.