Panelists Decry Power of Big Money in Politics

The flood of money in political campaigns unleashed by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision has had a corrupting influence on both elections and governance, a panel of politicians and activists said Thursday. The event, “Big Money vs. Grassroots Democracy: Empowering Citizens to Take Back Their Government” was part of symposium on the issue taking place at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

In the recent elections, big donors and Super PACs spent heavily in election campaigns and to promote initiatives such voter ID laws. “Big money is unaccountable money.” said Congressman David Price (D-N.C.) The money is not evenly distributed – 80 percent of the outside spending, more than $6 billion, went to Republican candidates and causes. In this Congress, “Democrats won over 50 percent of the total votes, but not the seats,” he said. Voter suppression activities, such as voter I.D. laws and restricting early voting, work against grassroots efforts, he said.

“In North Carolina, we have a clear view of how money corrupts and the results,” said State Rep. Larry Hall, the N.C. House minority leader. He pointed to the influx of outside funding in the recent election. One group spent money for a Republican candidate in an Asheville race in the Charlotte media market as well as in the district, a race decided by less than 1,000 votes. 

N.C. Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby was re-elected in a tight race with State Appellate Court Judge Sam Ervin IV. Ervin had a consistent lead in the polls until “the banjo ad,” a TV spot funded mainly by the Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee, which also paid for consultants for N.C. redistricting plans now being contested in court. Newby is the judge on that case. Since he did not raise that money, “Newby can distance himself from it and he has not recused himself from the case,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.  

The panelists said large amounts of outside funding undermine North Carolina’s system of public funding for judicial races, formerly considered a national model.

“I call the Super PACs money drones,” said U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.).  “As a candidate, you are walking along and hear a humming noise, then $500,000 worth of ads goes off over your head.” Congressmen now spend an inordinate amount of their time fund-raising, to have enough funding to combat the influence of unexpected ad campaigns by Super PACs and large donors. “We don’t have time to study bills or get to know our colleagues. It creates a climate of fear.”

Price agreed, saying “the system doesn’t encourage compromise” in legislation. It also makes “members less generous with each other.”

The panelists also discussed possible solutions to the problem. Both Price and Sarbanes have proposed legislation to support public financing of campaigns. Price also wants to tighten the rules on Super PACs, so they can’t be run by a candidate’s former aide, and stronger rules against coordination with campaigns.  The panelist s also agreed on the need for greater disclosure of funding sources in all ads.  Price credited Mac McCorkle, Sanford’s director of graduate studies for the MPP program, as the author of the “Stand by Your Ad” provision in the McCain-Feingold act, which requires candidates to approve their campaign’s messages.

Legal options also can be explored, said Earls, a lawyer who has served on the Board of Elections. “A constitutional amendment securing the right to vote is one strategy. I’m not Pollyannaish about how difficult it would be,” but an amendment initiative would help channel citizen anger and increase public attention on the problems with our current system, she said. She also suggested strategies to “chip way or overturn” the Citizens United decision, as has happened in civil rights cases.

Nothing is possible without public support, said Price. Change will only come with an “awakening of political and moral outrage.”