Americans are disturbed by the influence of money in political campaigns. In a mid-January national poll, 64 percent favored limiting how much individuals can contribute to campaigns, and 67 percent favored limiting how much groups can contribute (CBS/New York Times, January 12-17, 2012). At the same time, legislative attempts to address the problem have had little success and have little support in Congress. The 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which held that First Amendment prohibits government from placing limits on independent spending for political purposes by corporations and unions, seems further evidence that in a contest between laws and the First Amendment, laws will fail.
Money in politics is here to stay, especially since both political parties seem intent on keeping the money flowing. To the extent that money, especially by corporate and wealthy interests, is heavily influencing campaigns (and the governing that follows them), democracy takes a hit. We need a solution that does not depend on new laws or the Supreme Court.
Fortunately, such a solution is available. It's called voting. It might seem naive to say it, but democracy can actually solve this problem with democracy.
If Americans believe that access matters in campaigns and government, then the millions of Americans who lack the funds to gain such access have another route they can use -- the ballot box. Those running for Congress and the presidency need money, but they need votes even more. Unfortunately, a lot of citizens don't vote. In withholding their vote, they deny themselves influence.
For example, in the 2008 elections, 91.8 percent of those with incomes of $100,000 or more voted, compared to 51.9 percent of those whose income was less than $20,000. If those making less than $50,000 voted at the same rate as those making over $100,000, that would amount to over 16 million additional votes (greater than 12 percent of all those cast in 2008).
As another example, 72.4 percent of those aged 65-74 voted in 2008, yet only 48.5 percent of 18-24 year-olds cast a ballot. If 18-24 year-olds voted at same rate as those aged 65-74, that would have amounted to more than 6 million additional votes.
Thus, if the nearly 50 million citizens of voting age who have family incomes of $50,000 or less think that government policies benefit those well-off more than they should, they don't need to make campaign contributions, but they do need to vote in greater numbers. Similarly, if young people want the costs of programs that benefit seniors to be contained and programs that promote the needs of those struggling to pay college loans and make a living enhanced, they need to show up more at the polls -- where they can contend with the AARP not by lobbying but by voting.
Of course, attempts to register those who don't vote and get them to the polls constitute an election strategy of many candidates (just as making it harder for college students and the poor to vote may constitute a strategy of some in politics as well). But something more organized, more thorough, and more ongoing is needed if we want the voluntarily disenfranchised to have their voice heard in the halls of power.
If we believe that democracy needs the voice of all voters, we need to make it easier to register and vote. We also need an educational campaign -- starting in the schools but continuing in social institutions such as colleges and universities, churches, and civic organizations. That campaign should focus on not just the importance of voting and how to register and vote but on ways to make citizens' voices heard, including how to write, email and visit office holders, organize for collective action, study issues, and check the accuracy of campaign promises and charges. We also need an advertising campaign each year that encourages and, if necessary, shames people to vote.
Civic literacy is essential to free government, but we don't support it as we should. Governments at the state and local level, as well as the federal government, should provide such support. Funds to pay for it could come from the kind of check-off on tax returns now used to provide public financing for campaigns as well as from donations from those who believe in the power of democracy to fix what's wrong. Much of this effort can be mounted as part of the ongoing work of schools, colleges and other organizations and need not take new funding.
Civic literacy is also a responsibility of all Americans. So we need to challenge those who stay away from the polls to become more responsible. It's not up to somebody else to speak for them. They must speak for themselves.
Former President Bill Clinton once said that "there is nothing wrong with American that can't be fixed by what is right with America." Voting is one of those "rights." We need more of it.