Money in Politics: The Solutions Are Here and Voters Are Ready for Leaders

06/12/2015 02:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016

It has been hard to avoid the similarities between the alleged corrupt activities of top officials at soccer's ruling body, FIFA, and the way American political candidates are wholly dependent on huge gifts from wealthy donors to run for office. The FIFA stories are chock full of words and phrases we have become too accustomed to using to describe our political system. Payoffs. Massive cash bribes for favors. Systemic corruption.

It doesn't have to be this way. As courting billionaire donors and raising money for super PACs rule the day on the 2016 campaign trail, the public is craving reform--and the public and politicians don't need to look far for the solutions.

On Wednesday, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Il) reintroduced the Fair Elections Now Act to amplify the voices of everyday Americans and fight back against big money special interest.

The Fair Elections Now Act, and the Government by the People Act introduced in the House by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), allow House and Senate candidates to run competitive campaigns for office by relying on small donations from people back home, not big-money donors in Washington.

These bills would amplify the voices of everyday Americans by providing matching funds for small donations by six dollars for every dollar raised--for example, a $40 donation becomes $240. To empower everyday Americans to participate, the first $25 people contribute would qualify for a "My Voice" refundable tax credit.

These bills are modeled on successful small-donor systems in effect in cities and states across the country. In places like Connecticut, Maine, and New York City, hundreds of candidates have been able to run and win competitive campaigns for office by relying on a blend of small donations and public matching funds.

According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 84 percent of Americans believe money has too much influence in politics and 85 percent believe we need either fundamental changes to or a complete rebuilding of our campaign finance laws. Both figures represent a vast bipartisan consensus about the nature of the problem and the desire to see a serious overhaul of how money in and around politics.

Simply put, Americans want a government that's truly of, by, and for the people--and they know in their bones that the current system isn't reflective of these values.

The reality is, even as we mark the introduction of the Fair Elections Now Act today, too many Americans don't believe politicians will actually change how our elections are funded. Nearly 60 percent of voters in the New York Times/CBS News poll said they were pessimistic about whether they'd see any reforms to the money in politics system.

Who can blame them? We see headline after headline about what I've begun to call the "billionaire primary"--the pilgrimages by presidential candidates to wealthy donors mansions. When granted an audience, the presidential candidates prostrate themselves in the hope that billionaires will adopt their campaigns and super PACs. What we hear about a candidates' viability is boiled down to the number that answers this question: how much money can they raise?

The public gets it. The debate about whether money buys influence over politicians has been decided so overwhelmingly that voters are have grown deeply cynical that anything can be done to address it.

There is a huge strategic opening for a candidate to take this cynicism head on and engage Americans on solutions to the money in politics problem. As Stan Greenberg recently wrote, for many voters a candidate "[championing] reform of government and the political process is the price of admission."

Rep. Sarbanes calls this the "mic check." If you want to make sure voters can hear you, you test out whether they're paying attention by tapping on the microphone with a message that says, "This system is deeply corrupt and we have to do something about it." That gets voters' attention. Otherwise, for many voters, it's just another politician droning on at the podium.

In short, there's a great deal of room for presidential candidates--be they Democrats or Republicans--to take real leadership on this issue, and the voting public is ready to get behind those leaders.

Democratic candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Governor Martin O'Malley have both called for small donor systems coupled with limited public funding. Republican candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham has said we might need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. And former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the issue will be a "pillar" of her campaign. In the coming weeks and months, we will need to hear what that means--and it should include Sen. Durbin's Fair Elections Now Act and the Government by the People Act.