“Money changes everything,” the saying goes, and its disastrous effect is being felt throughout American politics. Our democracy is under siege since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gave free rein to SuperPACs and dark money, elongating an already-lengthy election cycle and further discouraging voter participation in elections.
We are more than one year away from the November 2016 presidential election, yet candidates have already been up and down the well-worn campaign fund-raising trail. When John F. Kennedy announced his run for the White House in 1960, it was 311 days before Election Day. In March of 2015, Ted Cruz announced his bid for the presidency nearly twice as far out – 596 days before Election Day. The campaign is now a scramble to be first to start collecting big checks from corporate sugar daddies, and that’s just wrong. It distorts the campaign process, and results in elected leaders beholden to benefactors rather than the public interest.
An unprecedented $7 billion was spent by candidates, parties and outside groups in the 2012 presidential cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission. For 2016? The total is projected to reach a new record – $10 billion. With that kind of money, you could buy the Chicago Cubs and eight space shuttles. The oil magnate Koch brothers alone, arguably the biggest political donors in America, have committed to spending nearly $1 billion.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties are mired in this ceaseless mining for big money to keep their campaign machinery running. Earlier this month, it was reported that nearly 20 “ultra-rich” Americans — including bankers, hedge fund managers, and media barons — hedged their bets by contributing to both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. While both parties’ candidates have had their hands out, Republican campaigns, PACs and Super PACs have raised four times as much. It’s no coincidence that Democrats by and large are supporting campaign finance reform.
The promise of “one person, one vote” is broken when a handful of billionaires can underwrite parties and candidates with their vast wealth. It’s hard to have faith in one-on-one, face-to-face politics — talking to your neighbors and voters — or believe that the average person’s vote still carries the same weight as those who fund an endless barrage of attack ads, distortion and misinformation.
But I still believe in the promise of our democracy. I believe that our democracy can somehow be restored. I believe that every vote matters. But we cannot continue to allow the voices of a few to speak for us all. We must level the playing field for all who want to become involved and run for office. That means overturning Citizens United, working toward campaign finance reform such as the Government by the People Act, and restoring the power of each person’s vote.
David Orr, Cook County Clerk