For The People Act will empower small donors and increase representation in our democracy

The Senate Rules Committee recently considered a comprehensive democracy protection bill, known as the For the People Act, that we in the House of Representatives passed in March. The measure could go before the full Senate as soon as June. It would combat voter suppression, curb one-party control of district lines, and counter the outsized influence of wealth in politics.

The urgency of these goals, to repair the very infrastructure of democracy, is clear. But opponents on the committee attacked them with misleading claims. One of their chief targets in the bill is a voluntary program to boost small donors — in other words, Americans who cannot afford to write huge campaign checks — with public matching funds. They say it’s a misuse of taxpayer money.

The program actually would not use taxpayer money. But here’s the bigger truth opponents are hiding: without the reform, extreme private wealth will keep dominating politics. It’s why mega donors are working to kill the bill, while they give billions to push policies that favor corporations over middle-class and working families.

Let’s be clear about the real problem. In our representative democracy, we have a campaign finance system that is the opposite of representative. The vast majority of Americans have no influence in this crucial part of our political process.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have the chance to enable all voters to play a much bigger role in our democracy. Boosting small donors gives voters — not just moneyed interests — a chance to choose leaders who truly represent them, in every sense of the word. And when our leaders can bring varied perspectives and life experiences to bear on pressing policy issues, everybody benefits from a government that truly works for the people. That in turn helps us to grow our economy, improve childcare, strengthen infrastructure, and do more to help more people. Good policy starts with good representation.

Fortunately, public financing programs like the one in the For the People Act have been shown to increase the diversity of candidates for public office. Moreover, research by the Brennan Center for Justice found that small donor financing doesn’t just increase socioeconomic diversity among candidates; it also empowers more women and people of color to run for office. Too often, candidates from underrepresented backgrounds are deemed “unelectable” and counted out of the running by big donors before they have a chance to get their message out to voters. But when everybody has a fair shot, all kinds of candidates are electable.

Small donor public financing gives diverse candidates that fair shot while giving more voters a voice, so it’s past time to use this tool in our federal elections. Small donors have increased their giving in the most recent midterm and presidential elections, but large donors still drowned them out. In the past six federal elections, just a dozen mega donors — eight of them billionaires — gave $1 of every $13 contributed. Under two percent of Americans participated in the campaign finance side of last year’s election.

The voluntary small donor public financing program in the For the People Act is an effective tool for righting this undemocratic imbalance of influence. It would provide a match of $6 to $1 on contributions of $200 or less by supporters of candidates who opt in and are able to qualify by showing sufficient public support. A wave of states and cities have created similar alternatives in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which opened the floodgates to unlimited political spending.

Simply put, small donor public financing grows the ranks of donors so that they are more like all Americans. It does so by changing the culture and practice of politics in three ways that get us closer to our ideal of a truly representative democracy.

First, it increases the numbers of people who participate in elections as donors. From Los Angeles to New York City to Montgomery County, Md., more residents began donating to campaigns after public financing went into effect than before.

Second, small donor public financing increases the diversity of people participating as donors. Public financing donors look more like the general electorate, in terms of race, income, employment, and education, than traditional donors. Campaigns that participate in public financing attract donors from all zip codes, not just the ones where wealthy donors live.

And by boosting the financial importance of small donations, small donor public financing offers candidates like me a way to raise competitive sums by relying on a broad base of supporters. That helps any candidate or constituency that historically lacks access to networks of wealth. And it benefits the communities represented by candidates like me who may be able to compete and win in the traditional system, but would love to spend more time out talking with constituents and less time dialing for dollars.

I urge my fellow members of Congress to stop and think about the small donors they say are not worth empowering. Those small donors are American voters. With public financing, even more voters will be incentivized to donate small amounts as a routine act of civic life. Will some matching funds go to support campaigns we disagree with? Maybe. That’s a price worth paying to give more Americans a greater voice in their elections.

Increasing representation in our democracy is a reform all elected officials should want, not fear.

Rep. Lauren Underwood represents Illinois’ 14th District.

Tags Campaign finance For the People Act Lauren Underwood small donors

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