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The Small Donor Revolution: Empowering Citizens to Combat Influence-Money in Politics

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The 2012 elections are documenting on a daily basis the corrupt campaign finance system facing the nation in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

With that decision, the Supreme Court unleashed huge contributions, secret money, corporate spenders and Super PACs on our political system. The decision gave these funders the power to exercise disproportionate and corrupting influence over our elections and government decisions.

The problem we face today: millionaires, billionaires, corporations and bundlers are playing a dominant role in financing the 2012 national elections. The answer: we need to empower ordinary citizens to become the key players in financing our future elections.

We need a small donor revolution.

On August 22, 2012, the Brennan Center and Democracy 21 issued a report and new proposal for financing congressional elections. The proposal would engage and empower citizens in the political process by matching in-state contributions to candidates of up to $250 per donor with public funds at a 5 to 1 ratio.

The proposal, modeled on the successful system used in New York City elections, has been described by a New York Times editorial (August 22, 2012) as "a plan that could restore a voice to ordinary citizens."

In Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court recognized the democratic values of public financing. The Court stated, "[Public financing] is a congressional effort not to abridge, restrict, or censor speech, but rather to use public money to facilitate and enlarge public discussion and participation in the electoral process, goals vital to a self-governing people."

The symbol of our future national elections must be the ordinary citizen, not the multi-billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Mr. Adelson already has contributed tens of millions of dollars to Super PACs and told Forbes that he is willing to spend $100 million or more to ensure President Obama is not re-elected in 2012. Adelson also is the owner of a huge gambling empire that reportedly is the subject of multiple federal investigations by the Obama Administration's Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles.

As a New York Times editorial (August 17, 2012) stated, "[S]ince Mr. Adelson's financial future is riding on the outcome of these federal investigations, it is legitimate to ask whether he has motivation for supporting the Republican ticket so lavishly, beyond his sharp disagreement with the Obama administration's position on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process."

The Adelson example captures in a nutshell the dangers to democracy created by Citizens United and its new world of unlimited contributions, Super PACs and corporate spending.

In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court held that the contribution limits enacted following the Watergate scandals were necessary to deal with the "reality or appearance of corruption inherent in a system permitting unlimited financial contributions."

In the wake of Citizens United, the inherently corrupt system envisioned in Buckley is becoming a reality.

While we cannot limit independent spending of unlimited contributions by outside groups, we can dramatically increase the role and importance of small donors in our elections and revolutionize the way campaigns are financed.

Under the Brennan Center-Democracy 21 small donor empowerment program:

  • Individual in-state contributions up to $250 per donor would be matched with public funds on a 5 to 1 ratio. This would greatly increase the value of small contributions, dilute the importance of large contributions and provide new incentives for donors to give and for candidates to seek small donations from their constituents.
  • The proposal would provide citizens with complete control over the distribution of public funds. There would be no public grants. The public funds would be provided to candidates based on their ability to show continuing support on an ongoing basis from small donors in their states.
  • The existing limit of $2,500 per individual donor, per election would be cut in half for candidates who participate in the program. This would reduce the role and influence of large contributions for candidates who participate in the system.
  • There would be no spending limit for candidates who participate in the system, but there would be a limit on the total amount of public funds available to a candidate. Spending limits are no longer viable as a practical matter in the post-Citizens United world where outside groups can make unlimited campaign expenditures using unlimited contributions.
  • National parties could make unlimited expenditures in coordination with candidates participating in the system from a pool of contributions limited to $1,250 per donor per year. This would increase the ability of candidates to respond to independent spending by outside groups.

Ongoing breakthroughs in small donor online fundraising and recent FEC rulings that facilitate giving online should greatly enhance the effectiveness of the small donor empowerment program.

A similar small donor, public matching funds system is contained in legislation to repair the presidential public financing system introduced in this Congress by Representatives David Price (D-NC), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Walter Jones (R-NC) and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO). The presidential system worked well for more than two decades, but over time the public funds available for candidates failed to keep pace with the skyrocketing costs of presidential campaigns.

A successful small donor empowerment program, like the Brennan Center-Democracy 21 proposal, will restore citizens to their rightful preeminent place in our democracy.

The program will dilute the role and importance of influence-seeking money, reduce the opportunities for government corruption and provide candidates with an alternative way to finance their campaigns without having to sell their souls to their funders.

Citizens are not going to sit idly by while a relatively small number of very rich individuals along with powerful interest groups dominate our elections with influence-seeking money. The battle for the small donor revolution in American politics will begin as soon as the 2012 Election is over.

Fred Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes effective campaign finance laws.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the corrupting influence of money on our politics August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.