Elections Are About to Have a Lot Less Billionaires
A Federal Election Commission report has revealed that Kanye West‘s failed presidential campaign personally cost him $12.5 million. Despite high visibility, strong name recognition, and an Elon Musk co-sign, West’s bid for the White House earned him a dismal 66,000 votes nationally. That’s a lot to drop on an ill-conceived vanity project, but it’s nothing compared to the $14 billion that was poured into the 2020 election.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that spending on the 2020 election was almost double that in 2016. Unfortunately, the striking rise in campaign spending doesn’t reflect greater public engagement in the election or an increase in self-funded candidates like West or Michael Bloomberg.
Instead, a handful of wealthy donors continue to dominate electoral giving and spending while contributions from secretly-funded “dark money” nonprofits balloon. The problem isn’t necessarily how much is being spent (which is a lot), it’s where it’s coming from. On both sides of the political spectrum, historic levels of spending entitle private, non-elected individuals significant payouts from the government while their interests and beliefs shape US policy.
Super-PACs – a relatively new type of political action committee that can raise and spend larger amounts of money than traditional communities– allow billionaires to pour unlimited funds into campaigns, which effectively drowns out the voices of ordinary Americans. After a 2010 Supreme Court decision produced the super-PAC model, wealthy individuals have been able to skirt individual limits by donating to these groups.
The current system gives super-rich individuals a disturbing degree of access to and control over the political process. In the last ten years, super-PACs have been used to funnel illegal foreign funds into the country to exert foreign influence on Mayoral elections. PACS such as Disarm the Deep State have given the pro-Trump conspiracy theorists of QAnon new political access while the dramatic increase in advertising by outside groups contributed to misinformation throughout the presidential campaign.
Next week, members of the House of Representatives will vote on H.R. 1, aka the For the People Act; arguably the “most crucial legislation considered by Congress in decades” and what many analysts believe could “change the core structure of U.S. politics.”
Along with reforms to reduce barriers to voting, it calls for increased transparency around money in politics and measures to elevate the voices of small donors. The bill would implement the DISCLOSE Act– requiring political nonprofits to disclose the identities of individuals who donate more than $10,000 to the organizations.
The bill also includes a section on ethics reforms, which would tighten disclosure requirements for lobbyists. It also requires presidential candidates to disclose 10 years of tax returns and prohibits the President and Vice President from maintaining business contracts with the federal government.
One of the most exciting features of the bill is the small donor provisions which would use public funds to amplify small private contributions to participating federal candidates. The provision would let members spend more time connecting with voters and less time chasing big donors.
During the 2020 election, Americans across the country were faced with rampant voter suppression, gerrymandering, and an influx of special-interest dark money campaigns to be able to vote for the next president. Today, though voters are more polarised than ever, more than two-thirds of likely voters (68 percent) said they would back the H.R. 1 proposal. According to a recent survey, most Democrats and Republicans are in favor of expanding voter access and making political spending more transparent.