Where Does the Big Money in Elections Come From Anyway?

December 16, 2015

Citizens United Climate Change

Pretty much everyone knows that in the US, big elections mean big bucks. In the first half of 2015, $400 million had already been raised—with Election Day still over a year away! But some folks might be surprised to find out how few people are responsible for all of the money that gets poured into campaigns. We have Citizens United to “thank” for this out-of-whack influence in our elections.

Citizens United Means Anything But

Before the January 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case, laws prevented corporations and unions from buying media that promoted or criticized any candidate prior to Election Day. After the Citizens United ruling? All bets were off.

Political spending essentially became a First Amendment right, unleashing Super PACS that are now allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money from unions, corporations, and wealthy individuals and families. If that sounds unfair to the vast majority of voters who only have their one vote to influence the outcome of elections, it’s because it is unfair.

Big Money = Big Influence

It’s estimated that $5 billion will be spent during the 2016 election cycle—that’s billion with a B! But what’s even more surprising is that out of approximately 120 million households in the United States, just 158 provided nearly half of the money for the start of the 2016 campaign. Nope, not a typo. That’s small group of people with a whole lot of influence.

And it’s not just about big money, it’s also about the agendas that go along with those hefty donations. 130 of those 158 families are backing Republican candidates who have indicated that they’ll cut taxes on income and inheritances as well as pare back regulatory action. This is about protection of one’s own wealth versus creating and maintaining a system where people from all walks of life can prosper.

These big money donors are mostly white, older and male, in contrast with a country that’s increasingly young, multicultural and gender-balanced. That isn’t the recipe for creating a government that accurately reflects the people it governs.

So Why is Money Such a Big Deal?

On the surface, it might just seem like “Hey, that’s how the system works.” People who have a lot of money donate it to the candidate they like. That’s capitalism. What’s the big deal? Well, it might be capitalism but it’s not democracy.

That avalanche of money pressures political parties or specific candidates to makes a donor’s causes their own. And more money means more visibility in the media. And the more visible a candidate and their issues are, the more interest they attract. And the more interest, the more votes. This all has a long-term impact on future legislation and regulatory actions on specific industries—and that’s just for starters.

For example, the majority of those families (81 total) made their fortunes in finance and energy—so what do you think they want in exchange for those big donations? Big, big influence on how their industries are treated.

We think people are more important than money, and that everyone deserves an equal voice in our political system. Let's get the dough out of politics, folks!