Category Archives: Voting and Democracy

Advent Reflection Week One

Advent Reflection:
The Importance of the Census

Sister Simone Campbell, SSS
November 30, 2016

Woven into my Advent thoughts this week, is the marvel of the census. In many ways the census is at the heart of our Christmas story because it was Caesar Augustus’s census that required Mary and Joseph to leave Nazareth and return to Bethlehem to be counted.

I thought a census was about the emperor’s desire to know just how many people were under his rule. But reflecting on the reality, I realized it is also about Mary and Joseph’s desire to be seen and registered as family. The “House of David” is a metaphor for the familial ties to an extended clan. So the counting was important not only to the emperor, but also to the family. The census is both an individual and communal act.

So too, is our work on ensuring adequately funding for the 2020 census. The census seems quite mundane and individualistic, but it is a communal act. To be counted means that each individual is accorded the same dignity. It doesn’t matter whether the person is in a Manhattan penthouse, under a bridge or in an overcrowded apartment. Each individual is just one.

What I had failed to realize was the communal nature of the census. The census data collected in each state impacts the amount of federal funding  states recieve for many programs. It affects how we understand poverty and the struggle of low income families. For justice-seekers, the census data is a crucial tool that enables our government to provide for all. The census gives us a snapshot of our society and to be accurate it needs to include each and every person, especially the groups that are historically hard to count.

This Advent, let us work to prepare for the census for the individual dignity of having everyone seen AND for the communal vision that we are all connected.

NETWORK Joins Call for Census Funding

NETWORK Joins Interfaith Group Calling for Census Funding

Lucas Allen
November 16, 2016

NETWORK and 18 other advocacy organizations from different faith traditions recently sent a letter urging Congress to fully fund the Census Bureau in preparation for the 2020 Census. The census is an issue of concern for people of faith because:

  • Communities of color, people experiencing poverty, immigrants, young children, and rural residents are often undercounted in the census, which decreases these communities’ access to federal funding and proportional representation
  • The Census Bureau needs increased funding in FY 2017 to complete testing to improve accuracy in counting these populations in preparation for the 2020 Census. Uncertainty about funding has already prompted the Bureau to cancel the 2017 Puerto Rico census test and both field sites for the 2017 census test (American Indian reservations and tribal lands in Washington and North/South Dakota)
  • We need the 2020 Census to be modern, accurate, and equitable so that Congressional districts, federal programs, and policies are better equipped to meet the needs of the country

For more information, read the full letter below

Download PDF here.

November 10, 2016

Honorable Harold Rogers
Committee on Appropriations
H-305 The Capitol
Washington, DC 20515

Honorable Nita Lowey
Ranking Member
Committee on Appropriations
1016 Longworth H.O.B.
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Chairman Rogers and Ranking Member Lowey:

We, the undersigned faith organizations and members of the Interreligious Working Group on Domestic Human Needs, urge you to increase funding for the U.S. Census Bureau to match the President’s $1.634 billion budget request in the House and Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science bills. Our faith traditions compel us to care for those most in need, and providing adequate funding for an effective 2020 Census is a crucial prerequisite for federal policies and programs to respond to the needs of marginalized communities.

A failure to provide adequate funding for the Census Bureau will not only impact the effectiveness of the Census, but also cost taxpayers billions of dollars as the Census Bureau is forced to fall back on more costly counting methods of the past. These outdated methods tend to undercount communities of color, people experiencing poverty, immigrants, young children, and rural residents, which decreases these communities’ access to federal funding and proportional representation. If the Bureau does not receive increased funding in FY2017 to conduct necessary tests and prepare for 2020, we fear that these gaps in the Census will persist.

Some of the reasons our community of faith supports an effective and equitable 2020 Census include:

  • The 2020 Census will determine the allocation of $415 billion for the implementation of federal programs
  • Census data is used to monitor and enforce important federal programs such as the Job Training Partnership Act, the Older Americans Act, and the Civil Rights Act
  • Undercounting communities reduces their political representation and decreases their share of federal funding and support, further
  • A poorly-funded Census will negatively affect all, but particularly those most in need who will go uncounted if the Census Bureau cannot adequately prepare

Uncertainty about Congressional appropriations has already caused the Census Bureau to halt plans for important tests in FY2017. These tests were intended to prepare the Bureau to accurately count communities that have been undercounted in the past, such as Native American reservations and non-English-speaking communities. The impact of cutting these crucial tests will be felt by marginalized communities. It is unacceptable that Congressional inaction would force the Census Bureau to water down the Constitutional requirement of conducting a decennial census.

Stakeholders including state and local governments, businesses, civil rights organizations, housing and child advocates, and research organizations have voiced the need for a modern and accurate 2020 Census. As an interreligious community of organizations, we join in to urge you to support an equitable Census as a moral obligation. Our faith traditions teach that all humans possess inherent dignity—that everybody counts—and therefore we believe that nobody should go uncounted in our democracy. Funding the Census Bureau at the recommended amount of $1.634 billion is an important step in protecting and strengthening the 2020 Census.


Bread for the World
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good
Church World Service
Conference of Major Superiors of Men
Disciples Center for Public Witness
Ecumenical Poverty Initiative
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Franciscan Action Network
Friends Committee on National Legislation
National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd
National Council of Churches
NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice
Office of Social Justice; Christian Reformed Church in North America
Pax Chrsiti USA
The United Methodist Church – General Board of Church and Society
Union for Reform Judaism
Unitarian Universalist Association
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries

Follow Pope’s Example of “Meddling” in Politics

Follow Pope’s Example of ‘Meddling’ in Politics

By Sister Simone Campbell, SSS
October 24, 2016

The world’s Catholics now have a Pope who prioritizes the common good, and encourages Catholics to get involved in politics. He has said “a good Catholic meddles in politics,” and getting involved in politics this election is desperately needed. I predict that this year, the first presidential election since the election of Pope Francis, we will see a rise in the Pope Francis voter: People who are genuinely concerned with exploitation of our people and our earth. These Pope Francis voters will come together this election season to defeat bigotry and hate.

While Pope Francis’s message is one of welcome and inclusion, we know that some politicians continue the dog whistle call of the political far right, attempting to control the Catholic vote through a single issue. In 2016, it won’t work. Our faith calls us to address the needs of all the people at the margins of our society. It’s not just about the needs of the unborn or those on death row. It’s not just about the needs of the top 1 percent, or the 99 percent, but it’s about the 100 percent.

This election can’t be about a single issue, it cannot just be about protecting the unborn, but also about protecting immigrants, Muslims, women, children and people in poverty. Any Catholic who has heard Donald Trump disparaging immigrants as criminals and rapists, advocating for sexual assault and the exploitation of women, denigrating Muslims, demeaning people of color by labeling them thugs, and calling people in poverty losers knows that he is not a presidential candidate deserving of the Catholic vote.

Recently, leaked and stolen emails from 2012 have revealed a conversation among several Catholics who are now tied to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. This has been painted as “anti-Catholic bigotry.” Let me be clear: This is manufactured hysteria, a desperate political move and a farce. Those who are genuinely concerned about the interests of Catholics would promote the dignity of work, stand with those who are living in poverty against the structures of injustice, and rise above individual interest for the good of the whole community.

This October, I’m traveling through Cincinnati to talk with my fellow Nuns on the Bus, and all the Pope Francis voters who join him in his prayer: “I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor!” Nuns on the Bus Ohio has been committed to this effort, holding politicians accountable for the voter purge which would hinder access to democracy, working with immigrants and refugees to improve access to citizenship, and protecting our environment as stewards of the earth.

I am coming to Cincinnati to meet with people who are pursuing employment and seeking housing opportunities, to learn more about their lives, and to talk about issues that are most important to them this election season. I am also coming to Cincinnati to talk with people who aren’t Catholic, but share the conviction that we must do all we can to care for the common good. I invite you to join me for an election discussion that focuses on the common good. As people of faith, we must be a model for the media and for our candidates that we want a substantive conversation, not fights that tear apart the fabric of our society.

In 2016, Catholics are Pope Francis voters who work for the common good. We must not allow our polarizing election to turn us around.

Originally published in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Voting: A Privilege and a Responsibility

Voting: A Privilege and a Responsibility

By Mackenzie Harris
September 27, 2016

As a millennial and a “Pope Francis voter” I cannot stress how concerned I am for our nation during this Presidential election. We’ve been faced with some of the most hateful messages from potential leaders of our country – it’s embarrassing. Frankly it isn’t what the title President of the United States of America means to me.

I may sound like just another millennial complaining about the government, but isn’t that how it should be? Shouldn’t we all be working for a better, more just society? It is a privilege that we live in a place where we decide the leaders of our country, so why not take advantage of it?

In many ways I think we get lost in our privilege and forget that we have the responsibility to use it to lift up the voices of people on the margins. And because we are Americans we have the right to speak directly to the causes at hand by voting, contacting our Members of Congress, or speaking out in our community.

I moved to Washington, D.C. to join NETWORK, and to use my privilege to work for the greater good. I’m inspired by NETWORK’s mission and my peers, who speak out about the importance of voting. The truth is, voting is the primary way to have a say in justice. As an American, each and every citizen has a responsibility to hold our government accountable for their actions through civic engagement and activism.

However, questioning our democracy and not doing anything about it is just a scapegoat to push the responsibility onto someone else. And in reality, it’s up to everyone.

Whether you have zero interest in getting caught up in the “drama” of politics or would rather spend your time occupying your mind elsewhere, I encourage you to spend time educating yourself on the Presidential candidates and the importance of voting. NETWORK has created Side by Side comparisons of the major Presidential candidates, and Senate races in several key states to help you see where the candidates stand on our Mend the Gap issues.

Although I am discouraged by the bigotry and hate spewed this past year, I am looking forward to Election Day as a time for unity in our nation. I am excited for our people to come together to work for the common good. I believe in this country and especially the people in it, because when faced with adversities we can overcome and together we can create systemic change.

This is the government we have; now it’s up to us to participate so our democracy works by choosing our leaders, and lobbying them on issues we care about.

Do you want to be a part of the group that says “voting is pointless” or turns a blind eye while our nation is in desperate need of your support?

I hope not. Register to vote today!

Travel Log: Toledo Caucus

Travel Log: Toledo Caucus

Sister Margaret McGuirk, OP
July 16, 2016

On Saturday evening, our third and final event in Toledo was our Mend the Gap caucus.  The  caucus held in Monroe Street United Methodist Church and hosted by Pastor Larry C. Clark.  We were warmly received by the energetic people gathered there.

3ToledoThe discussion and sharing were profound and Sister Simone pulled together the concerns and the dreams for the future of our nation.

Then, in our small group discussion we talked about the “gaps” in Toledo. We heard many of the similar things we had heard in other cities. People talked about lack of affordable, quality housing, public transportation, and there were also concerns about racism.

Sister Simone then asked us to envision a society where these gaps were mended. There were some wonderful ideas. I especially enjoyed hearing a young person talk about the need for equal access for all to voting. This youth also spoke about how quality education is vital to a democratic government.

The group also talked about gerrymandering, which has been a serious problem in Ohio. They said that in order to mend the gap in access to democracy, we needed to have just, non-partisan mechanisms for drawing congressional boundaries without regard for party affiliation. The participants in our caucus also agreed that we needed to change the way electoral campaigns are funded to reduce the influence of special interest groups and wealthy donors.

Overall, there seemed to be particular concern about voting and democracy here in Toledo tonight. This is a value also emphasized in Catholic Social Teaching:  responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.

See also:
Slideshow: Toledo Caucus
Reflection on Day Six: Choosing Positive Change

Guest Blog: Unbind Section 4: The Voting Rights Act is still needed

The Voting Rights Act is Still Needed: Unbind Section 4

By Leslye Colvin
June 23, 2016

The United States of America theoretically embraces voting as a sacred right. Unfortunately, the history and lived experience of systemic obstacles to the exercise of this right underscore the urgency of its protection, and the continuing need for Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

In 2015, NETWORK Lobby sponsored an interfaith advocacy retreat on economic inequality at Springbank Retreat Center in Kingstree, SC. Designed as a teambuilding exercise for Palmetto State advocates, invitations were extended also to those in neighboring states. More than a dozen South Carolinians from across the state, and a few outsiders, gathered on land made sacred by the blood of enslaved Africans and their descendants. After touring the former working plantation, the property managers showed a pair of shackles discovered on the grounds. This was the most emotionally charged moment of the gathering. A century and a half after the end of chattel slavery, we were hit by the literal and figurative weight of this tool of bondage. It was a tangible expression of the economic and racial injustices binding us to the struggle. Bound by this common desire, we worked, ate, and prayed together for three days.

Tragically, three weeks later, the falsehood that had sustained centuries of injustice walked into Charleston’s Emmanuel A.M.E. Church, a historic sanctuary, to dispense death. This man’s life experience was corrupted by centuries of an unjust and often legal system built upon the deception of racism and white privilege. The oppressive system simultaneously denies ones dignity and citizenry. The Martyrs of Emmanuel A.M.E. paid the ultimate price as did countless others who merely acknowledged their dignity and their citizenry.

As the nation mourned her latest martyrs, elected officials began responding to previously ignored calls to relinquish one of the final symbols of the Confederacy. Before I relocated to my home state of Alabama, the governor had unceremoniously removed the flag from the State Capitol. An act that even my optimism could not have foreseen.

Invited to be a silent observer at a meeting hosted by the Secretary of State on the possible restoration of voting rights to those who had been incarcerated, I left the meeting dismayed. Each participating elected official identified himself as a conservative as though the meeting was a campaign event. They then proceeded to address the moral turpitude of those who had been incarcerated. In Alabama and many other states, the incarcerated are disproportionately African-American. Having spent the majority of my life in Alabama and Georgia, I have never heard moral turpitude used to address those who profit from economic or racial injustice.

Whether it is real or perceived, no one freely relinquishes power. As African-Americans have demanded the recognition of their dignity and citizenship, they have often encountered violent opposition throughout history. From the Emancipation Proclamation to the 14th Amendment and Reconstruction to Brown v. Board of Education to the Voting Rights Act to the Civil Rights Act to the election of President Barack Obama – advances have consistently been met with incredulity and obstinance as opponents sought to revert progress. This is the context of Shelby v. Holder.

Amidst the pain and death, the 1960s were a season of hope.  In Christian scripture, after Jesus restores Lazarus to life, he instructs the community to unbind him. For centuries, African-Americans have called upon their government to unbind them. The Voting Rights Act was a tangible response this call. Almost as tangible as the shackles discovered at Springbank, it cannot unbind the deeply rooted systemic injustices of preceding centuries in five decades. Unbind us. Unbind Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Leslye Colvin





Leslye Colvin is the Director of the Catholic Committee of the South, and a member of NETWORK.

Blog: Still Marching towards True Freedom and Equality

Still Marching towards True Freedom and Equality

Joseline Araujo
March 24, 2016

This spring break I was selected to participate in a life changing experience: an Alternative Spring Break trip to Selma, Alabama. When I arrived in Selma, Alabama I was immediately exposed to a different environment that was much more rural. The sights were beautiful with the countryside, fresh air and animals.

joseline pettus bridgeWe were to complete community service for four days during our week-long stay in Alabama. The energy and motivation we felt doing service for the people living in Selma struggling with poverty created a bond to the place they call home. We painted, cleaned and rearranged houses inside and out to make the house feel more like a home. However, painting and cleaning was not the purpose of the community service. More importantly, we heard stories about the neighborhoods and the struggle that the Selma community faces and why. We were able to show accompaniment in listening to what these people have lived through in this historical city.

During the last two days, we visited downtown Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma. In Selma we saw and walked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge- a bridge that witnessed the greatest marches of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham that shook the nation when this church was bombed in the 1960s, killing four innocent little girls inside the church. Seeing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s home in Montgomery, the Jackson home in Selma and the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University in Birmingham gave chills hearing the stories of how leaders met to create plans to overcome discrimination, oppression and violence.

If we are wrong, the Supreme Court is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Going to Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham made me appreciate more deeply the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and what this meant for a community of people whose votes were restricted due to the color of their skin. I am motivated to continue fighting racial inequality and educating my generation about the importance of voting in every election. The entire experience changed my way of thinking about what is needed to be done in the world to create true freedom and equality.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr began a movement that took over the nation. But he was not alone, he had the support of his community to create change and spread solidarity. His work was just the beginning of a mission that future generations continue working for. His words echo for current social justice movements today:  “If we are wrong, the Supreme Court is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong”. –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Joseline Aruajo is a current NETWORK intern and a Junior at Trinity Washington University studying Sociology and History.

Voting Is a Start, Not an End

Voting Is a Start, Not an End

By Rachel Schmidt
November 03, 2015

How great it is that we live in a democratic country where we choose our elected officials. We have a government “by the people and for the people” that rejects the notion that power can be concentrated into the leadership of the unelected few. Historically, democracy has been a cataclysmic shift to the idea that all have the right to take care of society. As people of faith, we participate in our democratic government through voting on election day and through advocacy the rest of the year. This freedom to vote is an important and considerable responsibility; here are some best practices to simplify and prioritize the process.

NETWORK has a tool that can help you register to vote, vote via mail, and reminds you about upcoming elections. TurboVote helps take some of the guesswork out of voting when it comes to the logistics and can help you plan ahead for voting day. It will send text and e-mail reminders about upcoming election days. If your state allows absentee ballots, a great option is to sign up with Turbovote, vote ahead of time, and avoid the hustle of Election Day.

But what about knowing which candidates to choose? Even if you plan and/or get your absentee ballot ahead of time, choosing from a list of names you’ve possibly never heard before can be daunting. You also want to be a responsible voter who chooses a candidate who represents your values and community. It’s tempting to take the easy way out, check some boxes, and come out of the ballot box gilded in “I Voted” stickers. To avoid the ineffectiveness of being a “Gilded Voter” there are some tools that can help you research candidates. offers a tool called “Vote Easy” that helps you determine which presidential candidate matches your views.

Voting is not the solution to all issues in a country or government, but it is an integral part of the solution. If it wasn’t important, gerrymandering and voter restrictive laws would not be created to sway voting outcomes. Russell Brand, an actor, comedian, and social activist, finds voting to be so meaningless that he advocates against doing it. Brand is right to want more out of our political system, but we must start somewhere. The vote has not become null and void, and it’s a start. To be fair, it is also not an end. We must use our power, as a collective voice, to raise the important issues to our elected officials time and time again. This act goes far beyond the ballot box.

When a Speaker Can’t Govern, No One Wants the Job

When a Speaker Can’t Govern, No One Wants the Job

By Rachel Schmidt

October 20, 2015

The Speaker of the House is a high-power position that sets the tone for the House of Representatives and is second in line for the presidency; a dream for any ambitious politician. Yet, no one seems to want the job. Speaker John Boehner is resigning, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) has made it clear he doesn’t want it, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the running. The reason for the widespread hesitancy could be related to the strong divisions in the Republican Party that have made Speaker Boehner’s job arduous. There is no easy way, as Speaker of the House, to be able to please the Freedom Caucus, which operates as a “squeaky wheel,” and does not allow for the compromise necessary to create laws. For those of us interested in social justice, a lack of governance and a lack of a Speaker halt any hope of systemic change.

The leadership of Speaker of the House is necessary for the proper functioning of the House of Representatives. He or she is elected from the majority party in the House, and historically, has always been a congressperson. The duties include overseeing procedure in the chamber, appointing members to committees, and setting the legislative agenda for the majority party. The Speaker is not merely an administrative or ceremonial role; there is a great deal of power exercised in this position, especially when deciding what bills are brought to the House floor for a vote.

One example during Speaker Boehner’s tenure is when he applied his power to the issue of comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 and 2014. A comprehensive bill, S. 744, went through much of the legislative process and was passed in the Senate. The hard work of immigration activists paid off as half of the legislative battle was accomplished, but they gritted their teeth in anticipation and hope of what the House would do to follow. Rep. Joe Garcia introduced an almost identical bill, H.R. 15, which received bipartisan support with 200 cosponsors (a bill only needs 218 votes to pass.) Yet, that is where the process uneventfully ended, because Speaker Boehner refused to bring it to a vote. Months of work and compromise can be all in vain, because the Speaker holds the political power to bring a bill to a vote. This situation was particularly frustrating because had the bill gone to the floor, it would have passed.

The power of this office indicates the necessity of not only having the role filled by a politician seeking to create just laws, but also a person who has the ability to govern. The current disinterest in the position of Speaker has been influenced by a House that is ungovernable. The fact is that the Freedom Caucus is difficult to politic with. They have a stringent platform that embraces no compromise, and they make a plethora of noise when they do not get their way. David Brooks, a syndicated, conservative columnist, critiqued this way of legislating as ineffective and a threat to the very institution of democracy.  

We the people cannot effect systemic change without a properly functioning House of Representatives, and therefore, the institution and its capacity for governance must be upheld and respected. Article One of the Constitution outlines the House as the chamber where the will of the people is made a reality. Pope Francis said, “A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern. But what is the best we can offer those who govern? Prayer!” With the current Speaker situation, we better start meddling, and we better start praying!

et cursus.

Blog: Can Democracy Survive Voter Suppression Laws and Flood of “Big Money” into Election Coffers? (Part 2)

Can Democracy Survive Voter Suppression Laws and Flood of “Big Money” into Election Coffers? (Part 2)

By Carolyn Burstein
August 13, 2014

(This is the second in a two-part series addressing the question of the title. This article addresses the issue of “big money” in our elections).

Two major Supreme Court decisions – Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) issued in January 2010 and McCutcheon v. FEC issued in April 2014 – allowed unfettered amounts of money to dominate our electoral processes. The first decision allowed businesses and unions to spend unlimited and undisclosed amounts of money on political activity, which led to the creation of super “political action committees” (PACs) and nonprofit advocacy groups that engage in political campaigns. All these groups must operate separately from the candidate who is running for office. In the years since Citizens United, Super PACs have become a regular part of the political landscape and have become notorious for their highly negative ads, excoriating the opposition.

The second decision, rendered this past year – McCutcheon v. FEC – struck down the overall limits on how much individuals can donate to all candidates and political parties. In both cases, the Supreme Court (in its majority opinions) removed previous barriers to campaign contributions that they said violated a person’s First Amendment right to free speech.

The practical result of both of these Supreme Court rulings is to “open the floodgates to unbounded spending that would undermine what remains of campaign finance reform,” as Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his minority opinion in the McCutcheon case. More importantly, these rulings are undermining our participativedemocracy. As Breyer says somewhat later in his opinion, “Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard … and a cynical public can lose interest in political participation altogether.” These rulings erode confidence in our political system.

Many believe that the flow of “big money” into our political system has reached crisis proportions. Let’s enumerate its unpleasant effects:

  • American elections have grown increasingly expensive, with the 2012 elections the most expensive in our nation’s history. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), more than $144 million has been spent to date (up to August 1, 2014) on the 2014 mid-term elections, and it appears that this election is on track to spend at least $1 billion, roughly the same as in 2012, although not a presidential election.
  • The voices and policy preferences of ordinary Americans are drowned out by those of wealthy special interests, whose preferences are reflected in the national political agenda. On policies like unemployment benefits or any other safety-net program, the minimum wage or healthcare coverage, the nation’s wealthiest tend to have fundamentally different views than those of ordinary Americans.
  • As the political system becomes less responsive to their needs and preferences, ordinary Americans lose faith in our democratic system. People for the American Way, a liberal group testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 2, 2014, noted a November 2013 poll, which found that 7 in 10 Americans thought our election system was biased toward those with the most money. And Fred Wertheimer, a long-time advocate of campaign finance reform said in an interview with Bill Moyers in April 2014, “The Court’s decisions [referring to both Citizens United and McCutcheon] have empowered a new class of American political oligarchs which have come at the enormous expense of the voices and interests of 300 million Americans.”
  • It is highly likely that the biggest donors in elections will make known their specific legal or financial needs. If the candidate responds accordingly, then the outsize influence of a small number of oligarchs on public policy can transform our beloved democracy into a full-blown plutocracy. Referring to the role of money in our electoral processes, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that it “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation.”
  • The influence of wealth in any election, sharpens the focus on the issue of inequality in our country.
  • The deluge of spending in elections takes a toll on the effectiveness of individual lawmakers who have far less time to listen to constituents and colleagues or to craft clear public policy because they are so busy raising funds for their re-election. People for the American Way says that U.S. senators must raise at least $4,600 each day of their 6-year term (including weekends and holidays) and representatives must raise approximately $2000 each day of their 2-year term just to reach the average amount needed for reelection.

These unattractive effects of “big money” in elections have not deterred its active role in the contests underway in the 2014 midterms. Eric Pianin, writing in the Fiscal Times on August 8, says that with control of the House and Senate at stake, this forthcoming election is shaping up as one of the hardest hitting and costliest on record, with outside money pouring into all competitive contests. Voters are being targeted by political strategists who get their funding from a “new breed of plutocrats and kingmakers whose names they’ve never heard.” Outside groups are working hard to determine the outcome of elections that used to be controlled by voters, unless these voters are well-informed and are able to distinguish between propaganda and truth, often a difficult and time-consuming task.

Super PACs have become a virtual requirement in competitive congressional elections, according to Saul Anunzis, formerly the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. As he told the Washington Post recently, “Anybody giving advice to campaigns that did not recommend super PACs as part of the strategy mix would be committing political malpractice.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics (stated in an editorial in the New York Times on August 3), there are at least 64 super PACs dedicated to individual candidates in the 2014 mid-term elections, and they have already spent more than $21 million on ads, polls and robocalls. Two years ago there were just 42. Nearly all of this year’s Senate races include a super PAC that is spending unlimited donations from unnamed sources. But in many cases, the candidates have close ties to the donors and know exactly who they are. These candidates also know the people who decide how to spend the money.

Under these circumstances, it is hard to avoid the appearance of “corruption.” Critics accuse regulators of having a generally lax enforcement stance, especially when it pertains to many super PACs funded by independent advocacy groups. Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters of the U.S., claims that PAC systems have now become a huge funnel for corrupting elected officials across the country, as she told CNN in April 2014.

As long as candidates from both parties are benefiting from super PAC money, there is little hope of congressional relief. So what are some responses to the issue? As one would expect, they differ.

First, Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School with close ties to Silicon Valley and to Mark McKinnon, a former advisor to President George W. Bush, recently formed “Mayday,” a super PAC, to fight money with money. Mayday began a $12-million advertising campaign on July 30 to help elect candidates of both parties who support efforts to diminish the influence of big donors.

One of Mayday’s efforts is to advocate for more giving by small donors, hoping in this way to dilute the influence of “big money,” taking a leaf from President Obama’s fundraising tactics of 2008. Another effort is underway in Congress, where Mayday allies are urging lawmakers to support legislation sponsored by Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD-03) called the “Government by the People Act” or that of Representative Tom Petri (R-WI-06) called the “Citizen Involvement in Campaigns Act.” Both measures offer tax credits or vouchers to people who make small donations. However, neither of these bills made any headway before the congressional summer recess. “What Mayday wants is to elevate the issue overall as one of the most important issues in the election,” says one ardent supporter.

The Mayday PAC will be initiated through a buy of about $4 million in ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters tend to be more receptive to the anti-big money message, advertising is cheaper than in many parts of the country, and any victories will be noticed especially by presidential aspirants.

A second response to the gusher of unlimited money into election campaigns is through a proposed Constitutional Amendment to Restore Democracy to the American People (SJRes.19) sponsored by Senator Tom Udall (D-CO) and supported by many Democratic lawmakers and reform groups. The constitutional amendment gives Congress and the states the authority to regulate and limit the raising and spending of money on elections and, among other things, attempts to advance the fundamental principle of equality for all. The Senate plans to vote on the amendment before the end of 2014, but this effort has little support among Republicans. If it is supported in both the House (highly problematic) and the Senate (not likely), then it faces the uphill battle of passage throughout the states.

For those who have surrendered in the fight to achieve any legislative triumph or who won’t “embrace the irony” (as Lessig calls Mayday) and don’t support “fighting money with money,” or are weary of the series of defeats they have suffered since Citizens United, a third effort that stops short of reversing the trend of super PACs is to bring greater transparency to the entire fundraising enterprise. These advocates (e.g. Common Cause, the Sunlight Foundation, Campaign Legal Center) are calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require satellite and cable broadcasters to disclose who is paying for the political ads that they air and how much they’re spending, similar to rules that as of July 1 apply to individual TV stations. The whole idea behind this effort is to give Americans access to information about the identity of the people or group(s) bankrolling the ad campaign. An August 1article from “Moyers and Company” outlined this transparency effort and further steps reformers would like to see the FCC undertake.

Even though none of the preceding proposals sounds very optimistic and we are concerned that the role of “big money” in elections heightens the tendency toward plutocracy and inequality with their corrupting powers, it is important to remember that concerned citizens of both parties as well as good government groups are pushing toward a restructure of financing elections and will hopefully succeed before long.

It is certainly possible that the failures of any proposals mentioned could bolster efforts long underway on public financing of elections. As I’ve noted in a previous blog (“McCutcheon v. FEC: A Damaging Supreme Court Decision”), more than 10 states have already successfully experimented with publicly-funded elections at the local level. Whatever the chosen method, we must work to change the current system of funding elections before we completely lose what’s left of our democracy. We have often said that NETWORK believes in a world of economic justice; now we have an added reason to be involved in achieving it.