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Democracy For The 99%

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Professor Larry Lessig's op-ed in the New York Times yesterday, "More Money Can Beat Big Money," gets the problem with our political system absolutely right -- our elections should be "of the people," not "of the funders."

While I disagree with Lessig that a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. FEC decision is not important, such a measure would simply take us back to January 20, 2010, the day before the decision was handed down. I don't think any of us believe politics were much better, or less bought, two years ago.

In his piece, Lessig writes that, "following Arizona, Maine and Connecticut, we could adopt a system of small-dollar public funding for Congress."

He's talking about systems known as "Clean Elections," or "Voter-Owned Elections." While the small donor voucher proposal Lessig suggests is intriguing, hundreds of candidates across the country have already run and won depending only small donations combined with public funds.

And the results are striking.

Former Maine State Senator Deborah Simpson is a perfect example. When she was elected to the state house, she was a single mom and waitress that knew she could be an important voice in the legislature. The only problem, of course, was that she didn't have access to wealthy donors. Under the state's Clean Election system, she collected a threshold number of $5 contributions from people in her district and received a grant of "Clean" funds to run her campaign. Once in the legislature, she was able to advocate for issues she cared about -- like children's healthcare, helping victims of domestic violence, and others. Talk about the 99%!

Hundreds of candidates have been elected using these systems and their success in Maine, Arizona, Connecticut, North Carolina, and a handful of cities have led to support in Congress, too. Last year, the Fair Elections Now Act had the support of a bipartisan group of more than 200 Senators and House members. It passed out of a congressional committee in September 2010. Fair Elections candidates would collect donations of $100 or less from back home that would then be matched on a 5-to-1 basis, raising the voice of small donors in the political process.

There's no silver bullet to fixing the problems of our democracy in which a handful of wealthy elites are increasingly in control of the country's decisions. We know, however, that systems like Clean and Fair Elections make a difference, including bringing working folks -- waitresses and veterans -- into the legislature. When half of the Members of Congress are millionaires, it's the kind of change we need.

As Americans across the country stand together today to protest a political system that benefits the wealthiest Americans at the expense of poor and middle class families, it's time to turn that system upside down, moving politics and power from the money to the many.

A previous version of this post mistakenly identified Arizona State Representative John Loredo as having used Arizona's Clean Election System in his campaign.