June 21, 2016
Is there too much money in politics?
Come on, that’s like a friend asking you if you’d like another scoop of Chocolate Fudge Brownie when you’re hanging out on a hot summer day. YES, of course, yes.
But what about in your state? Are your local elections determined by ordinary citizens like you, or are corporations and wealthy operatives trying to rig the system? You might be surprised by the answer.
A Movement in Motion
We at Ben & Jerry’s feel passionately about this. Our founders even got themselves arrested protesting the role of giant campaign contributions in the weakening of our already hobbled democracy.
And we’re not alone. An entire movement fighting to get the dough out of politics and make voting easier is drawing support from a huge range of organizations and activists.
When the media throws around terms like PAC and Super PAC, it’s usually in a piece about presidential politics. So sometimes these issues can seem far away. But that’s not at all the case.
The truth is that big money is coming to dominate state and local elections as well. And money spent locally goes further than it does nationally, so it can have a bigger impact. Check out the map to see how your state ranks. Are small donors, aka ordinary citizens, calling the shots, or are the ultra-wealthy trying to hijack the process?
Just $200 Dollars?
$200 may not sound like a lot of money, but in the last presidential election cycle less than ½ of one percent of Americans made a political donation of more than $200. Donating that kind of cash to a campaign is well beyond what many people and families can afford and if the decision is between funding a politician and buying a month’s worth of groceries, you can bet that food comes first. Besides, since when did free speech get so expensive?
There are alternatives: New York City has found a way to amplify small donations, making everyone’s voice heard. But that sensible approach hasn’t been adopted much beyond New York City. Big money has a megaphone, and the rest of our voices are being drowned out by the noise.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that PACs and super PACs would get involved in races for governor, for example, or for the US Senate. But did you know that big-time cash is being dropped on local statehouse races? And school board elections? And city-council contests? And how about a small-town mayoral election in New Jersey? The examples go on and on.
You can thank Citizens United for the flood of unregulated donations now rolling into your town, city, and state. But why would national groups want to bother bankrolling a candidate for, say, the county board in Iron County, Wisconsin?
Think of it this way: while the media focuses on national issues and trends, big-money advocates can set up shop in counties and towns across the country for relatively little money. Once established there, they can spend and spend some more to enact their agenda. And local boards and counsels, not to mention state legislatures, have a much larger influence on how policies get enacted—and therefore everyone’s everyday lives—than most people realize.
Get the Dough Out
School board elections are rarely exciting or sexy, but savvy PACs and politicians know that there’s often no better place to start implementing their national priorities than somewhere beyond the attention and reach of the media.
So it’s up to us. Keep track of your local elections. Take a look at the website for the National Institute on Money in State Politics for updates and news from around the country. And add your name to a petition calling for the overturning of Citizens United.
The special interests may have the money, but we have the people. Together we can make sure our democracy works for everyone.
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