Democracy Dollars: the Ultimate Game-Changer

October 05,  2019

In several recent posts on this blog I have championed Ro Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act, introduced at the end of the last Congress, in December 2018. This is the boldest campaign finance reform measure since McCain-Feingold (a 2002 law that has since been eviscerated in several Supreme Court decisions, of which Citizens United (2010) is the best known). Khanna’s bill is a reform of breathtaking scope that, if implemented, would break the stranglehold that wealthy campaign donors hold over our politics, and make the United States a thriving democracy again. Equally important, the Supreme Court will probably not be able to invalidate this reform on constitutional grounds, the way they did to McCain-Feingold. In this post I will briefly explain the Democracy Dollars reform, review its benefits for our political system, answer some possible objections to it, explain why it should survive constitutional review by the Roberts Court, and argue that it should be central to Democrats’ strategy in the 2020 elections.

The Democracy Dollars reform concept originated in the book Voting With Dollars, by two Yale Law School Professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres (Yale, 2002). During the current Democratic presidential primary, candidates Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Yang proposed versions of this reform, though they said little about it and it has not drawn much media attention. Khanna’s bill, however, is a fully-developed law for implementing this reform. Under Khanna’s bill, the federal government would give every registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash, say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters could not withdraw this money for personal use, but would instead go online and assign it to the candidates or political action committees of their choice. With over 200 million registered voters as of 2016, this translates to $10 billion of public financing for candidates, dwarfing even the massive $6.5 billion in private money spent on the 2016 federal elections (presidency and Congress).

No candidate would be compelled to use the Democracy Dollars system – and many would need private donations to get their campaigns off the ground – but once a candidate opts into the Democracy Dollars system to get public funding, he or she has to give up all future private donations. Any candidate who fails to do so will be fiercely and justly accused of preferring to serve wealthy donors instead of serving the voters. This political pressure will drive a lot of the private money out of our political system, while the massive amount of public financing will let any serious candidate fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely from cash received from the voters. Currently, wealthy donors pay the piper and so they call the tune. They determine which candidates are viable, so they decide which candidates are available for the voters to vote for. These big dollar donors also decide what range of policies the candidates can embrace once they get into office, because elected officials have to come back to these donors again and again for the money they need to get reelected. In sum, Americans still get to vote, but they don’t have much to vote for, because big donors have already chosen the candidates and determined the candidates’ policies once in office.

Under the Democracy Dollars Act, the voters would become the donors who really matter, with enough campaign cash, collectively, to outweigh even the fearsome Koch brothers. Politicians would now respond to the voters’ needs and wishes, which is how a democracy is supposed to work. Politicians, in turn, won’t have to spend 20-30 hours a week on the phone with wealthy donors, “dialing for dollars.” A fundraiser will be a meeting with constituents, a rally in your Congressional district, or a mass mailing to your constituents – not a $5,000 a plate dinner with Wall Street executives. The United States would be truly a democracy again. And this reform has other benefits as well.

At present over 20% of the Americans who are eligible to vote are not actually registered, so they can’t vote on Election Day. The Democracy Dollars Act would greatly increase the numbers of registered voters for two reasons. First, Americans have a new reason to register – only if they do so can they get their $50 to influence the political process. And parties and candidates will try a lot harder to register voters, because every new registered voter is a potential source of campaign cash. This means higher voter participation in our elections and greater public faith in government and the political process. Voters are also likely to be more actively engaged in thinking about and discussing politics, because now they will have real power in the system, and need help from their friends and from news sources to decide how to spend their Democracy Dollars.

Critics will complain that this reform costs too much. At $10 billion for every two-year electoral cycle, this amounts to $5 billion a year, which is serious money. And yet it is a pittance compared to what Americans have sacrificed in the past in order to preserve our freedom, our democracy. Just think of the more than 4 trillion dollars (in today’s dollars) and the more than 400,000 lives that the United States sacrificed in World War II to protect our democracy from Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. Five billion dollars a year is a small price indeed for restoring our democracy, for giving power back to the people. In addition, the Democracy Dollars reform will pay for itself many times over every year, by ending enormous amounts of wasteful government spending. At present, lobbyists swarm over Congress, securing for their clients all kinds of corporate welfare in the forms of tax loopholes and government subsidies. There are also in the Pentagon’s budget expensive weapons systems that we really don’t need. These lobbyists have a lot of muscle when they talk to members of Congress, because lobbyists actually hold fundraisers for members of Congress, while the lobbyists’ clients contribute mightily to politicians’ campaigns. By replacing so much of this private money with campaign cash that comes from the voters, the Democracy Dollars Act will defang the lobbyists, and end much of the wasteful spending they produce.

Critics may also predict that most voters won’t actually spend their Democracy Dollars, given how alienated the voters are from the political system, and how apathetic they seem to feel about political issues. Yet this problem strikes me as more apparent than real. In the first place, assigning your Democracy Dollars to the candidates of your choice will be so much easier than the actual act of voting: you can do it from your own home, online, at the time and day of your choosing – no need to take time off from work, go to a polling place, and stand on line. Secondly, giving voters their Democracy Dollars will show them that they have real power in the political system, not least because politicians will constantly be coming to them as supplicants, asking them for the money.

But what about the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts? In the last ten years they have struck down just about every conceivable limit on donating or spending money in elections. Here the operative word is limit. Back in 1976, in a case called Buckley v. Valeo, the Court decided that money given or spent to influence elections was a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment, and that any limits on it were constitutionally suspect. This decision was a perversion of First Amendment values, one which lacked any precedent in our constitutional law, as Robert Mutch shows in his excellent book on campaign finance reform. But it became the law of the land, and did much to allow the growing damage which big money has inflicted on our political system since the 1980s. Under the leadership of John Roberts in recent years, the Supreme Court has simply taken this bad idea to its most absurd, most extreme conclusions. To read the bizarre logic of their decisions, one would think that the conservative justices actively want corporations and the wealthiest Americans to control our government. So wouldn’t these justices strike down Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act? They might indeed want to, given their apparent hostility to democracy, but their own past decisions would make it difficult for them to strike down Democracy Dollars. This is because the Democracy Dollars Act, far from limiting political speech, actually expands it. It gives the power of political speech to two hundred million Americans who never before could afford to contribute to political campaigns. It massively multiplies the number of political voices and the range of political ideas that can be heard. The Democracy Dollars Act thus powerfully affirms First Amendment values in precisely the way that the Supreme Court has defined them. And given that the Supreme Court has made it impossible to limit money spent on elections, public financing of elections like the Democracy Dollars Act is probably the only way to break the power of wealthy donors in our political life.

In previous posts I have argued that the Democracy Dollars Act should be a central part of the Democratic Party’s strategy in the 2020 elections. Let me briefly review that argument. I contend that American democracy is now under greater threat than it has been at any point since the Civil War, and that the Democratic Party can present itself as the savior of our democracy from big money, anti-democratic Republican policies (partisan gerrymandering, vote suppression, packing the courts, etc.), and President Trump, who has blatantly authoritarian leanings and has routinely trampled on the Constitution and democratic norms. Democrats will try to save our Constitution by impeaching Donald Trump. Their For the People Act fights vote suppression and partisan gerrymandering. If they also champion the Democracy Dollars Act, they will be striking a serious blow at the undemocratic power of wealthy campaign donors. This trifecta of policy and action – impeachment and the two reform bills – can make the 2020 elections about saving American democracy, and can be a winning strategy for Democrats, giving them a unifying issue for reaching out to independents and moderate Republicans. Many Americans will disagree with Medicare for all or the Green New Deal, but all Americans – or so I hope – still believe in democracy.