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Denise Wheeler

Denise Wheeler

Posted: September 13, 2007 08:47 PM

ActBlue - Putting The "D" Back in Democracy


The following piece was produced through OffTheBus, a citizen journalism project hosted at the Huffington Post and launched in partnership with NewAssignment.Net. For more information, read Arianna Huffington's project introduction. If you'd like to join our blogging team, sign up here If you're interested in other opportunities, you can see the list here.

Money continues to dominate this Presidential contest, which could very well exceed $1 billion, making it the most expensive election in American history, and sad to say a system at odds with the ideas upon which our nation was founded. Access and influence are the new principles of democracy and mega-fundraising now the sine qua non of a credible candidacy, and we've yet to even reach the primaries. But if the progressives over at ActBlue have their way it'll be the citizens, not deep pockets, that determines who lands in the White House next year.

Launched in 2004, ActBlue is an on-line fundraising platform that seeks to put the power back in the hands of the people, while countering the affect of big money on our democracy. The average American doesn't have the funds to contribute millions, or even hundreds of dollars to support a candidate for election. And the average American has no chance of running for, and being elected to a government office, due to his/or her lack of financial resources. This leaves the majority of Americans without a voice in government. But ActBlue hopes to change that with just the click of a mouse and a credit card. By collecting mostly small-dollar donations -- $200 or less -- ActBlue facilitates individual donors pooling their money to finance Democratic candidates. Individuals can donate through the website (actblue.com), to almost any candidate of their choice. Utilizing the Net's egalitarian and collaborative essence, ActBlue hopes to give Americans of every Democratic stripe a chance to get in the game.

The brainchild of Benjamin Rahn, 30, and Matt DeBergalis, 29, ActBlue has already amassed more than $27 million, in coordination with bloggers, campaigns, and small donors. It was key in flipping the House and Senate control in the 2005-20006 election cycle, with $15 million of its intake funneled to congressional campaigns. As a result, Rahn and DeBergalis have emerged as serious party heavyweights, and ActBlue the largest direct donor to congressional candidates of either party. Not bad for a couple of guys who began in their living rooms with just a scrap of investment and their laptops. "The blogosphere was our earliest adopter," Rahn said. "They helped push $250,000 into federal campaigns that summer, and by the end of 2004 we were printing $1 million in checks out of Matt's living room."

Today, the concept of merging the Internet and politics is mainstream, but that wasn't the case only a few years ago. John McCain and Jesse Ventura were both early adopters. But it was Howard Dean, in his 2004 presidential bid that really proved the net's usefulness and capabilities, after he amassed relatively small contributions in unprecedented numbers. Joe Trippi, now a senior advisor to the John Edwards presidential campaign, pioneered Dean into on-line history and believes the Internet is going to be a real difference-maker in the 2008 election. "The major thrust is engaging voters, creating community around candidacy and getting people to be evangelists for the campaign. It's critical to the functioning of democracy and ActBlue is proving that. No other site is more effective or transparent," Trippi said.

Its little wonder the GOP has been scrambling to play catch up to ActBlue's online success. They recently rolled out an improved version of their own grass-roots fund-raising site, ABCPac, which sent $300,000 to GOP congressional candidates. Although thus far hasn't been much of a serious ActBlue competitior. "They've been incredibly successful for the Democrats, and there's been no Republican answer to match them," conceded Jason Torchinsky, ABCPac's general counsel.

Both activists and visionaries, Rahn and DeBergalis also happen to be two immensely bright guys. A Harvard graduate, Rahn set aside a doctorate in theoretical physics at CalTech, after realizing their potential to restore a Blue America. DeBergalis is considered one of the greatest software engineers out of MIT, where he earned a master's in computer science, before making a noble yet failed bid for Cambridge City Council in 2003. He came in tenth, with nine open seats, but managed to snag an unprecedented number of votes for a candidate who made late-night dining part of his platform. Still, it was a good lesson in Politics 101, the main lesson being it's nearly impossible to get elected without raising huge sums of money by currying favor with the political fat cats.

"It's no longer a democracy, but a plutocracy," says Shelia Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "People elected to office in our country from President to state legislator should not be beholden to the donors." But Washington lobbyists continue to spend over $2 million a day to sway and cajole our representatives to support their interests, not ours. According to Rahn, one of the biggest obstacles is that people don't believe they can actually make a difference; they believe either their vote or their campaign will fail without money and influence. But he believes ActBlue can change that. "The internet is the most effective political salesman in the world," Rahn says, "and we're determined to maximize it, because we believe it the best for democracy."

Since its launch more than 115,000 people have contributed through ActBlue and the numbers are rising daily. But Rahn and DeBergalis believe ActBlue's greatest potential lies in its ability to "nationalize" local races in the 23 states in which the PAC operates. Congressional districts will be redrawn again in 2010, and they say with state legislatures drawing those lines, strategic donations to Democratic state legislative candidates could have a major impact on the fate of the national party. "At that level, the relative impact is massive," DeBergalis said.

The real impact will be seen next year, after the final votes are cast and the 44th President of the United States steps into the White House. Who that will be is anyone's guess at this point. But one thing is certain: money will play a major role in putting him or her there. There was a time in our nation when campaign fundraising couldn't indicate voter support, but those times have clearly passed. If the two major party nominees run their primary and general election campaigns wholly on private contributions, and there's good indication they will, they are expected to spend a combined total of $1 billion on their campaigns. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln's campaign cost about $100,000, and his opponent Stephen Douglas's campaign about $50,000. One hundred years later, John Kennedy's campaign spent about $9.7 million to defeat Richard Nixon, whose campaign cost about $10.1 million. This election has now become an arms race in spending, and the one with the most cash could very well be the one who wins.

But our governmental system was built upon a fair and ethical system of election, in which the best candidate would achieve the seat of office, not the wealthiest, or the one with the most influential supporters. As John Quincy Adams wrote in 1828, "The Presidency of the United States was an office neither to be sought nor declined. To pay money for securing it directly or in-directly, was in my opinion incorrect in principle." ActBlue agrees with Adams. Let's see if our citizenry does too.

The above piece was produced through OffTheBus, a citizen journalism project hosted at the Huffington Post and launched in partnership with NewAssignment.Net. For more information, read Arianna Huffington's project introduction. If you'd like to join our blogging team, sign up here. If you're interested in other opportunities, you can see the list here.