Time to Abolish the Wealth Primary?

John Bonifaz and Jamin Raskin

Money and Politics
        Forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down, as violative of equal protection, the last vestiges of the white primary's candidate-nominating process which excluded African-American voters. Today, the wealth primary -- a candidate nominating process which excludes the poor and working people -- has replaced the white primary as a principle instrument of anti-democratic exclusion.
        Like the white primary, the wealth primary is set up on an exclusionary basis that favors the interests of wealthy individuals and political action committees. At least 77% of the money spent in federal election campaigns comes from one percent of the people, and at the same time the champion fundraiser wins in the vast majority of races. Most Americans do not have the money to be heard effectively in the wealth primary, and millions do not have the money to be heard at all.
        This means that our electoral process and outcomes are dominated by the influence of big money. Like its predecessor, this exclusionary process violates the constitutional guarantees of equal protection for all, discriminating against poorer candidates and voters. Like its predecessor, this process stands as a barrier to the fundamental right to vote and meaningful participation in the electoral process. The time has come to declare that private financing of public election campaigns is inconsistent with the requirements of American constitutional democracy.

Congressional "Reform" Unworthy of Name
        But Congress, saturated with special interest money, is not ready to confront the inegalitarian effects of the wealth primary. On November 22, 1993, just prior to its winter recess, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a campaign finance reform bill which would provide partial public funding of House candidates who agree to comply with voluntary limits on overall campaign expenditures.
        The vote came some five months after the U.S. Senate approved its own version of campaign finance reform, a bill which would impose a new tax on candidates who refuse to comply with voluntary spending limits and a ban on political action committee contributions. Both houses of Congress must now try, in a conference some time in 1994, to reconcile the differences between the two bills. Even if a joint bill can emerge from that conference and be approved, the House must still enact separate financing legislation before its partial public funding plan can become law.
        "This bill is real reform." So declared Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut upon the passage of the House bill. But neither the House bill nor its counterpart in the Senate come close to eliminating the worst inegalitarian features of the wealth primary or to securing the guarantee of equal protection in the political process.
        Rather than providing even the bare minimum of a floor of public financing, the House bill only provides public funds as a match to private dollars a candidate is able to raise on her own (matching the first $200 of any contribution). Thus, public money will be used not to open up an exclusionary process but to reinforce and to amplify the voice of those already wealthy enough to give.
        Further, the bill would provide public funds only up to a third of the overall spending limit, which in some contested races would go as high as $970,000 by 1996. The Senate bill is even worse, providing public funds to candidates -- up to one-third of the voluntary spending limit -- only if their opponents go above such limits, which range from $2 million to $8.25 million.
        These bills are unworthy of the label of "real reform." They do nothing to challenge the long-held and misguided assumption that election campaigns can be democratic when they are overwhelmingly funded by wealthy interests. They lock into place a fundamentally-flawed regime in which private wealth continues to dominate electoral processes and outcomes.

A Call for Public Financing
        To be democratic, elections must be democratically financed. This means total public financing -- across the board for primary and general elections. Just as we the people, own the ballot boxes and the process of printing ballots, so, too, must we own the campaign process. We can create a system in which qualified candidates would receive full and equal amounts of funding to run their campaigns on condition that they forgo all private money.
        The system, which would be voluntary (at least for the time being so as to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling in Buckley v. Valeo), would provide publicly-financed candidates additional grants to match those who opt out of the system and who go above the voluntary spending limits (up to 300% of the limit). The cost of this kind of system would be five to ten dollars per taxpayer, a fraction of what today's system is costing us in terms of corporate bailouts, tax breaks and subsidies and a government unresponsive to needs of the people.
        Democratically-financed elections would promote real political equality in America. They would also vindicate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection in the political process. But it is clear that we cannot depend on the U.S. Congress, whose members are chief beneficiaries of the wealth primary, to lead the way to this kind of systematic change. Rather, we as a people must lead the way, in the spirit of democratic struggles which have come before us, here and abroad.

        John Bonifaz is staff attorney for the Center for Responsive Politics, which focuses on the influence of private money in federal elections. Jamin Raskin is an associate professor of law at American University's Washington College of Law. They are co-authors of "Equal Protection and the Wealth Primary" in the Winter 1993 issue of the Yale Law & Policy Review.


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