09/11/2015 03:13 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2016

Campaign Finance Reform: How Can Change Actually Happen?

In my campaign, one of the biggest issues I discuss is campaign finance reform because I believe it to be the most fundamentally important reform that America needs right now. Without a change in how money is raised for political campaigns, it will make honest discussions about other reforms incredibly difficult. Since the Citizens United Supreme Court case in 2007, we have seen some of the least productive Congress sessions in the history of the United States. Untraceable big dollars from corporations and the mega-wealthy have corrupted our democracy, and many of us agree that something needs to be done. But, this isn't the only problem. Despite what many people believe, "pay-to-play" is legal in most of the country. What this means is businesses that want to do business in a certain area can legally donate heavily to politicians. Often times, companies that donate the most end up getting the contracts or approvals. So the question is, how will change actually happen? Because of the Supreme Court decision, a constitutional amendment or an overriding decision by the Court would be needed to totally reform campaign finance. There could also be some limited solutions through legislation. Let's explore all of these options.

Supreme Court Reversal:

Right now there is roughly a 0.00% chance of a Supreme Court reversal. Both Reagan appointments still on the Court, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy are 79 but have shown no sign of slowing down. If they both retired in the next 4 years, and we have a Democratic President next, and that President was able to get 2 liberal Justices appointed, and a case made it all the way to the Supreme Court to overturn Citizens United we'd be looking at a best case scenario of change sometime in the 2020's. And, even then, it is still exceedingly rare for the Court to reverse itself, so a reversal would remain unlikely. We should just assume this isn't a real option.

A Constitutional Amendment:

The Constitution provides that an amendment may be proposed either by Congress with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the State legislatures. So far, none of the 27 amendments to the Constitution have been proposed by constitutional convention, so let's disregard that as an option for now. That means Congress has to be involved. Once they pass it, they send it to the States. A proposed amendment becomes part of the Constitution as soon as it is ratified by three-fourths of the States (38/50).

The process is simple, but difficult. Especially in this instance, as all sitting politicians benefit tremendously from the current system even though America suffers. Let me explain why: Let's take Congressman XYZ. He wins, and is now in Congress. All the sudden, corporations and very wealthy individuals want to bend his ear about their thoughts on bills coming up that he has to vote on. They donate to his campaign or spend on his behalf because a few thousand or even a few hundred thousand dollars are pennies compared to the few million dollar contracts or few hundred million dollar contracts that the government awards as a result of certain bills. Or, perhaps it is just a case of very rich individuals wanting extra access and their opinion to be considered more than normal people so they donate and raise enormous sums so that elected officials listen to them. The point is: elected officials benefit from the current system because their job security is very good (occasionally incumbents do lose, but it requires an exceptional challenger and special circumstance).

How do we convince elected officials who all benefit from the current system in both Washington and in our State Legislatures to stand up for what's right even when it is increasingly more difficult to vote them out if we disagree with them?

We get loud about it.

It is already a bi-partisan issue that some particularly morally courageous Representatives and Senators agree with from both parties, but we need to convince a majority. There are wonderful groups like doing impressive grassroots work towards this end. Amendments tend to only get passed when there is a huge societal shift away from an old way of thinking. That's why the solution has to be collective and it has to be social. If we keep considering this issue in terms of the procedure we need to follow, we will continue to lose. It we think of it in terms of societal education and societal change, as daunting as that is, we could see this thing through to victory and take back our democracy.

Legislative Options:

There is a limit to what laws can be passed to eliminate the Supreme Court's decision because of their ridiculous math:
Corporations = People
People + Bill of Rights = Freedom of Speech
Freedom of Speech= Protected right to Political Contributions
so that means
Corporations + Bill of Rights = Protected right to Political Contributions

But, there are still things we can do. The American Anti-Corruption Act has been spread across the country. The Act makes it illegal to purchase political influence. It aims to end the pay to play situation I mentioned above. This is the easiest way we can take it to the people that manipulate and rob our democracy. Get this passed in your local municipality. Towns all across America already have. The best part is, it can make a difference immediately and doesn't rely on a countrywide movement to see results.

There are some ideas for legislation at the federal level, but in general, I think they are more of a distraction. We are seeing progress at the local level with bills like the American Anti-Corruption Act because it is simple, understandable, and easy to take action on. The federal bills attempt to attack pieces of the problem, but in my opinion the solution at the federal level has to be an amendment. But, even so, here are some ideas that have been proposed and likely will never be passed:

The Empowering Citizens Act creates a congressional public financing system, shuts down individual-candidate super PACs and prohibits coordination between candidates and outside spending groups. This is a bill that could be deemed unconstitutional if it were to pass. Also, there are challenges around ideas like this: how does a candidate qualify for public money, how many candidates will get it? Public money could end up with government bureaucrats picking winners, which is just as bad as wealthy individuals doing it.

The DISCLOSE Act closes dark-money loopholes by requiring groups that spend $10,000+ on campaign-related expenditures to file disclosure reports with the FEC. This is huge because we, the very least, deserve to know who is spending money on candidates so we can understand if that money is affecting how they vote.

The Shareholder Protection Act aims to protect unsuspecting investors of a company from supporting a corporation that is secretly making contributions to candidates they disagree with. It requires corporations to disclose election-related spending to shareholders and the public, even if the money goes indirectly through a third party.

Ultimately, change comes from us. If we talk about it enough, vote about it enough, and make it clear we won't accept anyone that work with Super PACs and dark money, then we will eventually win. People like Bernie Sanders and Zephyr Teachout offer real hope. Organizations like Mayday,, and Wolf PAC lead the grassroots charge. Change can happen, and we can retake our democracy. All campaign finance reform requires is the one necessary ingredient for a successful democracy: citizens working together!