Big Money is Muscling its Way into Little Politics

March 23, 2016

Ben & Jerry's - Money Sack At Podium

Big money in our political system is a big problem these days. Because when money equals speech, and speech equals power, those with the biggest bank accounts have the loudest voices and get to call the shots – often to the detriment of the rest of us (not cool, Citizens United, not cool).

That would be like if only the Ben & Jerry’s flavors with lots of chunks got to choose the freezer temperature – it would be madness! And not fair to the pints with few or no chunks (like our good pal Vanilla Caramel Fudge). 

The influence of unlimited, unregulated, and often untraceable amounts of money in our political system is more widespread than you might think. It’s not just presidential and congressional races that attract those big gobs of dough. Nope, the problem is right in your backyard, too. Big money has muscled its way into your state legislative and assembly races, gubernatorial races, judicial races and beyond.

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, outside expenditures on state legislative races rose by 75% in the wake of the Citizens United ruling, reaching a whopping $94 million in 2012. And just last year, two hotly contested gubernatorial races, Kentucky and Louisiana, raked in $14 and $16 million, respectively, from super PACs. And if you think those PAC donors don’t want anything in return for those bucks, we think you’ve had one too many milkshakes. With Congress often gridlocked by partisanship, donors are increasingly pointing their money toward state governments to further their political agendas.


The Garden State’s Political System is Wilting

New Jersey’s recent 2015 election was a prime example of the influence of big money right at home. With $12 million spent on the state’s legislative assembly races and nearly half of that from special interest groups, we’re wondering if money is growing on trees in the Garden State. One PAC in particular poured over $1 million into the state’s legislative races, much of it on television and social media attack ads in particularly competitive districts.


. . . While Voters Stay at Home

But money is only half the story for this infamous New Jersey election.

The other half is voter turnout, which was the lowest the state has ever seen. With the looming 2016 presidential election taking over the minds and screens of most Americans, only 21% of registered New Jerseyans came out to vote for their local legislative assembly. This vicious cycle of more money in our elections only turns off more voters, making the large sums of unregulated money even more impactful.

In the end, the party with the majority of PAC support – including that whopping $1 million – won big time. Coincidence? We think not.

What would the outcome have been without the influence of outside money, and with more voters making their voices heard at the polls? We’ll never know. But with big money clouding the waters, one thing is for sure – big-dollar donors have elbowed their way into New Jersey’s local government scene and are throwing their weight around. Big time.

One way to keep outside dollars from clouding the political waters in your state: overturn the Supreme Court’s detrimental Citizens United decision, which has allowed unlimited, unchecked dollars to flow into elections. Democracy only works when it works for everyone, and we say this thing isn’t working.