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This blog is jointly authored by WISPIRG Director Bruce Speight and WISPIRG Federal Democracy Advocate Blair Bowie.
On June 10, the Wisconsin General Assembly passed a bill (AB225) that, if passed by the Senate, would double the contribution limits to Wisconsin political campaigns and allow big money to further drown out the voices of Wisconsin voters. The bill also contains a provision to implement an online registration system — a great idea, but not enough to make this big-money bill worth passing.
The legislation would raise contribution limits from $10,000-$20,000 for Governor, Supreme Court justice, and other statewide offices, and from $500-$1,000 for Assembly and Senate candidates. WISPIRG believes the ideal contribution limit is one that nearly all voters can afford — $100 or less.
The federal 2012 election cycle displayed the ability of a miniscule fraction of Americans to dominate election spending using high contribution limits. In Senate races, $233 million — 40% of all money spent — came from just 0.02% of Americans making contributions at the limit of $2,500. In the House, 55.1% of all contributions—a total of about $397 million—came from donations of $1,000 or more, from just 0.06% of the population. The impact of average voters was tiny by comparison: In the House, donations of less than $200 accounted for a mere 25% of all donations, and for just 20% in the Senate.
This bill isn’t all bad. Its provision to implement online registration would be a great tool for increasing democratic participation, and we applaud state leaders for including it. However, increasing voter participation is just one side of the coin: When the only candidates on the ballot are those who were able to appeal to large donors, our election system is fundamentally undemocratic.
No matter what happens with this legislation, ultimately the best way to restore true democratic power to the people will be to overturn the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United ruling. That ruling brought forth unprecedented levels of outside spending. After this ruling, nearly $32 million in outside spending was funneled into the federal Senate and House races in Wisconsin, primarily from large donations by Super PACs and non-profit dark money groups who are not required to disclose donors. Wisconsin should join 15 other states in supporting a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United, putting an end to this influx of big money. By doing so, they will put political influence back into the right hands—the hands of the average citizen.
Overturning Citizens United is just a start—it must go hand-in-hand with small donor incentives and lower contribution limits. Wisconsin legislators should follow the footsteps of U.S. Representative Tom Petri (R), who has repeatedly introduced a bill that would reinstate a $50 federal tax credit for campaign contributions, a program that would boost public participation in the campaign finance process.
State officials should also use matching public funds to encourage state level candidates to fundraise from their constituents and not big money or out-of-state interests (as we saw in the recall elections). They should also lower the donation limit to a level that all citizens—not just the wealthy few—can realistically afford: $100.
The Assembly’s bill completely misses the mark. While it could increase voter participation through modernization, that gain would be overshadowed by the increased preference given to a few big money donors. It’s time to implement systems that protect our democracy by empowering the average citizen, while reducing the corrosive influence of big money.
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