We need a new Voting Rights Act that makes private financing of public electoral campaigns illegal. Period. And we need to make it a civil rights issue.
Consider: We do not allow private donors, each with his or her own desires regarding police protection, to finance the Baltimore Police Department. We disallow such a system because we understand that it would be ludicrously anti-democratic to allow private money that kind of influence over such a critical public function. Yet we allow just such an absurdly corrupt arrangement with the pursuit of public office, despite the clear fact that public office is public property.
The only thing that has kept us as a society from ending this insanity is the sheer inertia of our private-money-based campaign system. We’ve simply gotten used to it. The “speech” argument is pure vapor. Money is not speech. Speech is speech. People with money have every right to speak, but no right to use money to control who has access to public office. Barack Obama’s campaign, along with its acceptance of massive industry donations, also democratized things somewhat through huge numbers of small contributions via the Internet. This was helpful, but it’s nothing like the change we need.
We need to fully publicly finance all campaigns, granting each candidate X number of media messages of X length. No paid ads, ever. Networks would be required to provide free airtime. Candidates’ access to media messages and debates would be based on meeting a minimal threshold in polls, which might (or might not) be moved upward as the campaign progresses. How do we pay for this? 1.) We close tax loopholes that cost us trillions. 2.) We make the grownup decision that clean leadership must be a high fiscal priority. 3.) We realize that the cost of elections will plummet when we remove by far the biggest expense: paid advertising. 4.) We understand that clean government costs much less than dirty, money-dominated government (consider the catastrophe of deregulation).
We need to do this because a free and fair electoral process is a civil right. Private financial interference in this public process is a violation of that civil right. There are precedents for looking at it this way. The Fannie Lou Hamer Project in Michigan, for instance, took the stance that private financing of campaigns effectively disenfranchises poor communities and violates their civil right to fair representation.
What if voters in Baltimore and nationally used this bedrock principle to build a civil rights movement to remove private money from public leadership?