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Edward Erikson Headshot

Campaign Finance Reform: Money In or Money Out?

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For many Americans, the future of U.S. campaigns and elections may look bleak. Over the last 30 years, campaign spending has ballooned by 1727 percent. The floodgates widened in 2010, when the Supreme Court declared in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. And in 2012, outside groups spent an estimated $2 billion in attempt to exert their sway. The flow of big money doesn't necessarily mean that our politicians are bought and owned, but it gives large donors unparalleled access to candidates and unprecedented influence in shaping the national conversation and debate.

The majority of people -- Democrats and Republicans -- see the increase of money in politics as a threat to democracy. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll 76 percent of Americans think that there is too much money in politics. The same percentage of people thinks that money provides the wealthy with a larger share of influence.

Despite popular opposition, some politicians actually think that the solution is to increase the amount of money in politics. The Center for Public Integrity reports that "states are attempting to blunt the influence of free-spending super PACs and nonprofits by allowing people to contribute more money to political candidates." In 2013, six states have increased individual contribution limits and legislation is underway in eight more states. According to Arizona Rep. J.D. Mesnard, the Republican sponsor of the bill: "I realize people don't like money going to politicians but at the end of the day I suspect they like money going to special interest groups even less."

The attempt to nullify the effects of the Citizens United by increasing the amount of money that individuals can contribute to campaigns is akin to smothering a forest fire with kindling. It will boost the influence of an elite group of wealthy individuals -- about .08 percent of the U.S. population gives $2,500 or more to political candidates -- and reduce the voice-share of We the People.

But there is another way. Marge Baker at the People for the American Way notes, "After years of working with advocates across the country on this issue, I am convinced that the only way to completely reverse the damage done to our democracy by this reckless Court is through amending the Constitution."

Groups like Move to Amend, Public Citizen, People for the American Way, Free Speech for People and the Stamp Stampede have harnessed popular support to build the movement to amend the Constitution and stymie the nefarious influence of money in politics.

Statewide campaigns, largely led by volunteer citizen groups, have won resolutions in sixteen states and over five hundred municipalities that call on Congress to pursue a constitutional amendment. Viral movements like the Stamp Stampede have inspired tens of thousands of people to stamp political messages on hundreds of thousands of dollars that will circulate through the economy and generate millions of impressions. Ben Cohen, the founder and head stamper, calls it "a petition on steroids."

And Congress has responded: 23 Senators and eighty-one Representatives currently support the amendment process. Senators such as Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Representatives such as Rick Nolan (MN-D) and Jim McGovern (MA-D) have each proposed constitutional amendments in order to reform the campaign finance system. According to Congressman Rick Nolan "The need for fundamental change has never been more apparent than what it is today."

The path to a constitutional amendment is tortuous, thorny and dotted with hazards. But if we're going to reclaim our democracy -- a government of, for and by the people -- it's the best, and possibly, the only real course of action.

Full Disclosure: I have worked with Ben Cohen through MSC as a strategic advisor on the Stamp Stampede campaign since November, 2012