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"Not the Rich, More Than the Poor: Poverty, Race, and Campaign Finance Reform,"

by John C. Bonifaz September/October 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

The American experiment with democracy is failing. In this new Gilded Age, wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer hands and the gap between the rich and poor has grown ever wider. For the 13% of this nation living in poverty and for the millions of the working poor, the current political process is bankrupt. It does not provide any meaningful opportunity for the voices of ordinary citizens to be heard. For the very forces that control and directly benefit from the U.S. economy also control and directly benefit from today’s campaign finance system, and in doing so, disproportionately influence our public elections.

No experiment with democracy can survive under these conditions. Instead, it becomes a plutocracy, which the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines as: “1. the rule or power of wealth or the wealthy; 2. a government or state in which the wealthy class rules; 3. a class or group ruling, or exercising power or influence, by virtue of its wealth.”

We can change the direction. To do this, we must not only highlight the standard arguments of the danger of corruption posed by our money-dominated political system. We must also return to the bedrock principle of democracy: political equality for all. The power of the democratic vision lies in that simple promise. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers No. 57:

Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States…

This article focuses on the campaign finance system’s impact on the political voice of the poor of this nation. Too often in the campaign finance debate, this question is largely ignored. Yet, if the promise of political equality is to mean anything, it must, first and foremost, have meaning for the most powerless of our society. The political process cannot serve as an avenue for changing economic conditions for the poor when the playing field is uneven. In a true democracy, the poor and the rich must stand on equal ground.

The Poll Tax as History

Despite James Madison’s eloquent words more than two centuries ago, this nation has a long tradition of property and wealth conditioning political participation. The history of the poll tax presents the proper context for assessing today’s system of privately-financed public election campaigns.

Thirty-three years ago, in addressing the poll tax barrier for the third time, the U.S. Supreme Court finally articulated the principle that wealth discrimination in the political process is prohibited, in state as well as federal elections. In 1966, Annie Harper, a poor Virginia voter, made history. She and other poor voters brought a constitutional challenge to Virginia’s $1.50 poll tax to the Supreme Court — and won. The nation’s highest court, in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, struck down the poll tax on equal protection grounds. “A State violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” the Court ruled, “whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard. Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth....” The poll tax, a fee charged to citizens throughout the South as a requirement for exercising their right to vote, was no longer consistent with the U.S. Constitution. And, of course, the barrier the poll tax created to democratic participation, while aimed at all poor citizens, disproportionately disenfranchised African-Americans.

In issuing this ruling, which came two years after the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned poll taxes in federal elections, the Supreme Court reversed its two prior decisions upholding the poll tax. In 1937 (Breedlove v. Suttles) and in 1951 (Butler v. Thompson), poor voters had challenged the poll tax on equal protection grounds. In both cases, the Court found constitutional justification for requiring citizens to pay a fee in order to vote. But Justice William O. Douglas, speaking for the Court in the 1966 Harper case, stated:

[T]he Equal Protection Clause is not shackled to the political theory of a particular era. In determining what lines are unconstitutionally discriminatory, we have never been confined to historic notions of equality, any more than we have restricted due process to a fixed catalogue of what was at a given time deemed to be the limits of fundamental rights. Notions of what constitutes equal treatment for purposes of the Equal Protection Clause do change. [emphasis in original]

The Campaign Finance Barrier

The campaign finance system of today has replaced the poll tax of the past as the newest wealth barrier to equal and meaningful participation in the political process. Like the earlier poll tax, the current campaign finance system “makes the affluence of the electoral standard.” The system operates like a “wealth primary,” effectively pre-selecting the candidates who will be viable and who, almost invariably, will go on to win election. Voters lacking access to wealth are too often left simply to ratify the decisions made by that exclusionary process.

Consider these facts: In the 1996 elections, 92% of U.S. House of Representative winners and 88% of U.S. Senate winners first won the wealth primary — outraising and outspending their opponents — and then went on to win election. The vast majority of campaign money comes from a tiny and wealthy segment of our society. Less than 1% of the population contributes more than 80% of all money in federal elections in amounts of $200 or more. Wealthy individuals and monied interests increasingly control our elections, drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens.

While the campaign finance system discriminates against the vast majority of Americans who cannot amass and contribute large sums of money for the candidates of their choice, it reserves its harshest impact for the poor. Annie Harper did not have $1.50 in order to vote in Virginia’s state elections. A candidate running for the U.S. House of Representatives today must have, on average, half a million dollars in order to win. A U.S. Senate candidate must have $4.6 million. A presidential run? Check back soon for the latest record. For the Annie Harpers of today, equal and meaningful participation in the political process remains only a dream. The wealth barrier is higher than ever.

When we consider the intersection of campaign finance and race, we find that the system’s disenfranchisement of the poor disproportionately harms communities of color. While the poverty rate for white Americans nationally is 11%, the poverty rates both for African-Americans and Hispanics are more than double that, each at 27%. It is not surprising, then, that this wealth barrier maintains its strongest presence in communities of color.

A 1998 study by Public Campaign (“The Color of Money: Campaign Contributions and Race”), a Washington, DC-based organization supporting full public financing of elections, found that the nation’s top 100 communities in terms of campaign contributions are 80% white and that each of these communities gave an average of $1.4 million. In contrast, the 100 communities with the highest concentration of people of color each gave an average of $7,000. Similarly, a 1997 national survey of major congressional campaign contributors (giving $200 or more) revealed that 95% of such donors are white and 81% have annual incomes of $100,000 or more, with the top 20% in the $500,000+ income category (see the Green et al. report listed in Resources box). As Nelson Rivers, the NAACP’s National Field Director, says: “We’re impacted negatively in a disproportionate way. Since African-Americans have decidedly less income, less disposable money than other people in the country, we’re at a disadvantage when money is the deciding factor in whether you can participate.”

And what about our politics? Where are the voices, where are the policies focused on eliminating poverty and the sharpening division between the haves and the have-nots in this, the richest nation in the world? Who is speaking for the Other America? A 1998 study by Second Harvest, a national network of food banks, revealed that, in the midst of this so-called economic boom, more people are visiting soup kitchens, shelters and food pantries across the country, seeking relief from hunger. Forbes Magazine reported last October that the net worth of the 400 wealthiest Americans increased by $114 billion over the previous year. As United for a Fair Economy (UFE), a national non-profit focusing public attention on economic inequality here at home, points out in its important new book, Shifting Fortunes: “Less than half that increase — $48.4 billion — would have been enough to bring all poor Americans up to the official poverty line.”
Government policy with respect to the minimum wage provides a classic example of the lockout facing the poor in this system of privately financed public election campaigns. Business interests, which dominate the campaign financing process, consistently oppose increasing the minimum wage to a livable wage. As a result, UFE says, “A[t]he minimum wage has become a poverty wage. It was 19% lower in 1998 at $5.15 than it was in 1979, when it was worth $6.39, adjusted for inflation. The minimum wage used to bring a family of three, with a full-time worker, above the official poverty line. Now it doesn’t bring a full-time worker with one child above the poverty line.”

Meanwhile, the pay America’s corporate executives receive has skyrocketed. According to Business Week’s annual survey of executive salaries, CEOs now make 326 times the pay of factory workers. UFE calculates that if the minimum wage increased as fast as CEO pay since 1960, it would be over $57 an hour today.

Now, more than ever, another voice is needed in the public debate of our national priorities. But it cannot be heard — not under the current campaign finance regime.

The Movement for Full Public Financing of Our Public Elections

When the campaign finance system is viewed in the context of the poll tax history, the solution becomes all the more apparent. The solution for addressing the poll tax barrier was abolition. No response short of that would have been acceptable. The state of Virginia could not, for example, simply have lowered its poll tax from $1.50 to 75˘ and have survived constitutional scrutiny. Its only option, in accordance with the U.S. Constitution, was to eliminate the fee.

Abolition is the appropriate response to the campaign finance barrier. Abolition here means full public financing of our elections. In a democracy, public elections should be publicly financed. No one would reasonably suggest that we should revert to the days of privately financed election ballots or that we should begin to auction our election precincts to the highest bidder. Why, then, do we allow private wealthy interests to finance our public election campaigns? If we are truly to own our electoral process, then we must own its financing structure.

Six years after its landmark ruling in the Harper case, the Supreme Court struck down a system of high candidate filing fees for primary elections in the state of Texas (Bullock v. Carter). “We would ignore reality,” the Court stated, “were we not to find that this system falls with unequal weight on voters, as well as candidates, according to their economic status.” Texas had argued that the filing fees were necessary to pay for the cost of conducting the primary elections. If the fees were struck down, the state said, “the voters, as taxpayers, will ultimately be burdened with the expense of the primaries.”

The Supreme Court did not yield. Primary elections, the Court emphasized, are part of the democratic process.

…[I]t is far too late to make out a case that the party primary is such a lesser part of the democratic process that its cost must be shifted away from the taxpayers generally. The financial burden for general elections is carried by all taxpayers… It seems appropriate that a primary system designed to give the voters some influence at the nominating stage should spread the cost among all the voters in an attempt to distribute the influence without regard to wealth.

“Viewing the myriad governmental functions supported from general revenues,” the Court continued, “it is difficult to single out any of a higher order than the conduct of elections at all levels to bring forth those persons desired by their fellow citizens to govern.”

Like the party primary process, the campaign financing process has become an integral part of our elections. As with the Bullock case, the solution here must be to “distribute the influence” to all voters, regardless of their economic status. A new campaign finance system, in which candidates forgo private funds and receive equal amounts of public financing for their campaigns, would end the wealth primary and open up the candidate selection process to all voters. The cost, at $5-10 per taxpayer, would be far less than the billions of dollars in legislative favors to campaign contributors — in the form of corporate subsidies and payoffs — for which taxpayers now foot the bill.

In the past several years, a grassroots movement for full public financing of elections has emerged to respond to the campaign finance barrier. As a result of activist campaigns, voters in Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts have passed, by ballot initiative, full or near-full public financing systems for their state elections. In Vermont, grassroots organizers pressured the state legislature to enact a similar law for its gubernatorial and lieutenant governor races. Activist coalitions in more than 30 states, led by Public Campaign, which is pushing the “Clean Money Campaign Reform” model, are working for additional victories in the years to come.

All of these systems are voluntary, so as to comport with the Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which equated money with speech in the political process and which struck down mandatory congressional campaign spending limits. Ultimately, however, Buckley must be revisited and reversed. If candidates want to opt out of public funding, that is their prerogative. But no one has the right to drown out other people’s speech. Mandatory spending limits are necessary to ensure that those who participate in a public financing system are on equal ground with those who do not.

Longtime civil rights leader Roger Wilkins spoke of the link between the poll tax of another era and today’s campaign finance system in his keynote speech before a national conference on “Campaign Finance as a Civil Rights Issue” at Howard Law School last February:

[E]verybody knew that the poll tax was a civil rights issue. Everybody could see that because it was obviously an instrument for the exclusion of lots of people. But it was also an instrument for preserving the power of those who had long held power…

To the poor and the uneducated, the current system looks like exactly what it is, a tightly wrapped plutocracy which breeds the idea: “They are rich. That’s not for me. I can’t get in, so what’s the use?” That is the attitude that destroys democratic participation just as surely as the poll tax ever did.

The moral and legal promise of political equality cannot co-exist with the current campaign financing structure. If this nation is to uphold its expressed commitment to a democratic vision, then this barrier, like ones before it, must come down.

John C. Bonifaz is the founder and executive director of the National Voting Rights Institute (294 Washington St. #713, Boston, MA 02108, 617/368-9100, The Institute is a non-profit litigation and public education organization dedicated to challenging the campaign finance system on voting rights grounds and to defending meaningful campaign finance reform laws at the state and local level across the country. Mr. Bonifaz is a 1992 graduate of Harvard Law School and is a 1999 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship

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