E.J. Dionne — How to beat Citizens United


We are about to have the worst presidential campaign money can buy. The Supreme Court’s dreadful Citizens United decision and a somnolent Federal Election Commission will allow hundreds of millions of dollars from a small number of very wealthy people and interests to inundate our airwaves with often vicious advertisements for which no candidate will be accountable.

One would like to think that the court will eventually admit the folly of its 2010 ruling and reverse it. But we can’t wait that long. And out of this dreary landscape, hope is blossoming in the state of New York. There’s irony here, since New York is where a lot of the big national money is coming from. No matter. The state is considering a campaign finance law that would repair some of the Citizens United damage, and in a way the Supreme Court wouldn’t be able to touch.

The idea is that to offset the power of large donors, citizens without deep pockets should be encouraged to flood the system with small contributions that the government would match. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pledged to a state overhaul of this sort, based on the one already in force for New York City elections.†In his state of the state address in January, Cuomo spoke of how urgent it is to “reconnect the people to the political process and their government.” He could make himself into a reform hero across the country if he and the Legislature created a model law for other states, and the nation.

The New York City program is straightforward: The government gives participating candidates $6 in matching funds for every dollar raised from individuals who live in the city, up to the first $175. At a maximum, this means a $175 contribution is augmented by $1,050 in public funds. That’s a mighty incentive for politicians to involve more citizens in paying for campaigns. In the city system, participating candidates have to live within certain spending and contribution limits. In a new statewide system, there are likely to be no spending restrictions but lower limits on contributions.

The beautiful thing is that this approach should answer most of the criticisms offered by those who defend the Citizens United world. I say “should” because advocates of current arrangements will find a way to oppose any reforms. But the New York Revolution, if it happens, would undercut many of their arguments ñ including their constitutional claims.

The New York reform does not limit anyone’s capacity to participate. It creates incentives for more people to participate. It does not reduce the amount of political speech. It expands the number of people speaking through their contributions. It does not protect incumbents. On the contrary, it opens the way for candidates who might otherwise be driven from the competition by established politicians with access to traditional funding sources.

In short, it makes our democracy democratic again.

And it works. A study of the New York City program published recently by Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, and his co-authors Peter W. Brusoe and Brendan Glavin concludes that the evidence “suggests that multiple-matching funds can stimulate participation by small donors in a manner that is healthy for democracy.”

In particular, they discovered that the reform substantially increased involvement by residents of poor and minority neighborhoods. Suddenly, politicians are hanging around with people other than those with yachts, private jets and complicated tax breaks. Malbin and his colleagues put it more soberly: A matching-funds approach means politicians “spending time with a more diverse set of constituents than he or she would if all of his or her fundraising engaged the upper middle class and rich.”

As for those who object to “taxpayer financing of elections,” consider that a candidate doesn’t get a dime unless he or she raises money from willing private donors. Besides, the Malbin paper notes, “political and civic participation are public goods” and elections “are, after all, the public’s business.” Conservatives fond of vouchers in so many other areas should see this as an opportunity to create Democracy Vouchers.

It will take courage for incumbent politicians to risk establishing a bold new system that could put some of them in danger. But in the course of our history, New York has been a proudly innovative place. A nation looking for a way out from under the money regime created by Citizens United badly needs the example of politicians who believe in democracy enough to democratize the mother’s milk of politics.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is ejdionne@washpost.com.