Home Sweet Home: District Campaign Financing

Everybody knows that it takes millions of dollars to run for the most important political offices, and even billions (counting PACs and ‘dark money’) to run for president.

Although big campaigns can be funded by small donors (under $200 each), as Bernie Sanders has shown, most campaigns depend on large donors (up to and including more or less self-funded billionaire campaigns like those of Trump in 2016, and Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg this year).

It’s not a level playing field. Money can buy you a better ground game by hiring strategists, managers, pollsters, and field staff; it can also buy you a better mass media game by flooding printed and digital space with advertisements, news events, and internet buzz.

This kind of money politics is very different from personal politics we normally expect. The latter is rooted in a one-person-one-vote sense of fairness and democratic decision-making. It’s what we normally expect in public life, and it remains the rule in most local social and civic organizations, as well as in local government.

But that’s not how the larger political system works. It’s not about one-person-one-vote, but many-dollars-many-votes. We have the right to vote, to be sure, and that remains a check of last resort against any politics we don’t like. But we only get to the voting booth at the end of a long process saturated with fake news, propaganda, hypocrisy, and demagoguery. Even worse, our equal votes are made unequal through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and unequal representation, as in the US Senate and the Electoral College.

Finally, recent Supreme Court rulings–especially Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and McCutcheon v. FEC (2014)–have overturned limits on campaign contributions and institutionalized the big-money system of politics as a form of legalized corruption. It’s no wonder that half of eligible voters don’t bother to vote, and many who take the trouble to register do so as independents, distrustful of the big-money politics of the major parties.

Past attempts at campaign finance reform have focused on limiting how much individuals and organizations can contribute to political campaigns. But what they failed to address is the question of who should be eligible to financially support any particular campaign.

Currently, there is no limit on how many political campaigns anyone can financially support. I live in rural upstate New York, yet I am free to donate to anyone running for any office anywhere in the United States. I can also contribute to national political parties and political action committees (PACs), who then cycle contributions back into political mobilization and organization throughout in the country. Corporations cannot make expenditures to influence federal elections, but they can contriube to political action committees.

Why shouldn’t I be free to financially support a candidate or cause anywhere in the United States? That sounds reasonable until you turn the question around. Why should outside money routinely flow into the campaigns of my local state legislator or Congressperson? Why should my representatives be beholden to interests outside of the district they represent?

Let me suggest a campaign reform with teeth. Call it district campaign financing. It would accept current laws limiting how much individuals and organizations can donate to political campaigns and organizations but also insist that all political donations must come from within (not from outside) the electoral district in which the candidate or issue is on the ballot.

For instance, I must currently be a permanent resident of my town to run for town office. If district campaign financing were the law of the land, only permanent residents of my town, or other independent legal donors permanently headquartered in my town, could contribute to my campaign. Similarly, anyone running for Congress could raise funds only from residents and legal donors within the Congressional district; and statewide candidates could raise money only within NYS; and so on. Only candidates for president could raise money nationally.

Independent legal donors within a district might include corporations, political action committees, political parties, and independent expenditure committees (super-PACs). Twenty-eight states, including New York, allow direct corporate contributions to campaigns, though not beyond what’s allowed for individuals. But under district financing, these too would have to have to “reside,” or be headquartered, in the district in question. Even super-PACs would be pinpointed to a single community–a post office box somewhere–which would put some kind of check on their otherwise unlimited spending.

Under district financing, elected officials would no longer be torn between two masters, between the need to accommodate their voters on the one hand, and the special interests of outside donors on the other. District financing would help restore the kind of local political autonomy the Founders Fathers took for granted, but which has since been lost. The interests of elected representatives would once more coincide with those residing in their districts.

By banning out-of-district campaign contributions, the power of political parties, and state and national political action committees, to control local politics would be seriously reduced, if not eliminated. Candidates would no longer be chosen by their ability to leverage outside money. They would have to rely instead on their ability to win local support through local votes and local donations. It’s hard to imagine a better way of strengthening our communities.

The idea of foreign money ‘interfering in our elections’ has recently become a political football. But we’ve had outside money ‘interfering in our elections’ all along–money coming from outside the district in which the election is being held. If we’re going to continue to have money in elections (and it’s hard to see how we’re not), wouldn’t it be nice if it came from home?

Adrian Kuzminski is a scholar, writer and citizen activist who has written a wide variety of books on economics, politics, and democracy.