By Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Two people work in a smoke shop on the South Side of Chicago. One of them is the owner. What principle of law says that the owner of the shop gets to donate three times as much to a political candidate than the employee? How can campaign finance law be allowed to discriminate against workers like that?
On April 21, 2018, the Chicago Tribune reported that Mayor Rahm Emanuel added $1.7 million to his campaign in a single day. The explanation that followed encapsulates what’s wrong with our campaign finance laws. As in other states, the Illinois campaign donation system is set up like a board game, specifically a corporate board game.
If you are an actual carbon based person in Illinois you cannot donate more than $5,600 to a political campaign, unless you own a business. If you own a business you can contribute twice that amount on behalf of your business. And if you register as a political action group you can donate nearly 10 times the individual contribution limit, up to $55,400. These campaign limits are entirely lifted if one candidate in a race decides to give their campaign $100,000 of their own money.
That’s what happened in Chicago. Emanuel’s Republican opponent, Willie Wilson, boosted his campaign with $100,000 of his own money. Twenty-four hours later the Mayor added a million dollars to his campaign from just three wealthy donors plus another $700,000 from other donors.
In the Citizen’s United decision the US Supreme Court said, in effect, that money is a form of free speech. This may be true in some intellectual perspective of the court, but if true in the real world, how can there be a $5,600 free speech limit on voters? How can there be any limits at all?
In our Republic we have this bedrock principle that says, “One person, One vote.” Everyone has an equal say in who represents their interests. Corporate governance operates on a different principle that says, “One share, One vote.” You get one vote with every share of the company you buy. The bigger your financial stake is, the greater your say is within the company. Wealthy shareholders like this system because their voting power is proportional to their financial power.
The concept of one person, one vote is an anathema to them in our democracy. They feel their greater financial stake in the economy should also entitle them to a greater political say in our government. This is why they have rigged the campaign finance system.
As a thought experiment, try imposing the “One person, One vote” principle to campaign financing. One person’s donation limit in Illinois is $5,600. That means one vote is equal to that amount or less, mostly less. Most voters don’t contribute to political campaigns. Even if they do, the individual donation limit may be well beyond their means. The median income for a family of four is close to $56,000 a year, so a maximum political donation would cost them 10% of their annual income. Even a 1% donation would be well beyond their means. One tenth of one percent of their income, or $56 dollars, might be feasible for most voters, and this amount is 100 times the current limit.
If you go with the “$5,600 limit equals one vote” rule, then being a business owner gives you three votes, one personal vote and two votes for your business. Join another business owner to form a political action committee you get eight votes, five votes for your half of the PAC, three for your business and one personal vote.
Then Willie Wilson upsets the apple cart in Chicago by donating $100k to his campaign. Now just three wealthy donors get a total of 180 votes or more for Mayor Emanuel’s campaign. The actual impact on how a candidate might responds to donors is enhanced by the fact that tens of thousands of voters contribute nothing. Additionally, because individual donor limits are 100 times what the average voter can afford, the impact of those three big donors in the mayor’s race is more like 180,000 votes. So, if you are Rahn Emanuel, who are you going to listen to?
Money is not free speech. Money is power.
If we agreed to pair the power of money to the power of the vote, then one voting share should have the same price tag for every eligible voter. It should not favor businesses or the wealthy as it does now in our corporate governance style of campaign finance. This also means only eligible voters should be able to donate; No PACs or businesses. If a businessman or organization wants to lobby for a special interest, they should lobby directly with the people to gain influence rather than lobbying our politicians. It would mean that fair share campaign finance limits would either be equal and affordable for everyone, or without donation limits but with maximum transparency so every voter can see exactly which candidates the big donors are buying.