Lerner: As outside money pours in, who’s really in charge of our democracy?
August 29, 2013
New York City voters this year are facing more than the usual barrage of mail and television advertising from candidates for office.
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, outside special interests are spending big to influence elections here by forming political action committees to sponsor independent expenditures on behalf of their preferred candidates — a backhanded way to get around the city’s campaign finance laws, some of the strongest in the nation, which are intended to keep contributions and spending in check.
In some races, outside groups are even outspending the candidates themselves, which begs the question: Who’s really in charge of our elections?
The health of our democracy depends on candidates communicating clearly about the issues that matter to voters. Independent expenditures unfairly color the campaign process by dominating the conversation with the point of view of a particular interest. That’s a huge problem for voters aiming to make an informed decision, if all they see is propaganda masquerading as campaign literature and advertising.
First and foremost, voters need to know who is sponsoring the advertising they receive, as independent expenditure committees all too frequently hide behind carefully focus-grouped names that mask the identity of their backers.
Although some voters in the 38th City Council District may notice that the 18 pieces of mail they’ve received touting Sara Gonzalez’s record are from Jobs for New York, it’s unlikely that many of them have bothered to look up the group on the Campaign Finance Board’s difficult-to-navigate website.
If they did, they’d find that the more than $6 million funding the PAC came from just 116 limited-liability corporations. If they then researched those companies, they’d find that they were used to funnel money to the group from just 22 backers — all of them major real estate developers.
If the advertising itself — on a variety of issues, none of them related to real estate or development — listed those backers, voters would be in a far better position to interpret the ads’ claims, and to hold the candidate accountable for her relationship to the people promoting her. But with no such disclosure, Jobs for New York has spent more than Gonzalez on her own campaign — a huge windfall for the candidate that comes at the expense of open, representative government. That’s why Common Cause/NY urges the Council to pass a package of legislation to be introduced by City Councilman Brad Lander, which would include a requirement that city campaign ads paid for by independent expenditures list the top five contributors on the ad itself.
Things are hardly better in the mayoral campaign, where NYC Is Not for Sale, a group dedicated to the election of “Anybody But Quinn,” has spent nearly a million dollars so far on TV advertising smearing the Council speaker while her opponents offer little more than a helpless shrug.
Once again, the voters lose as the PAC’s backers remains a mystery to average people. But while Chris Quinn’s opponents, and the speaker herself, claim to be powerless to do much about the outside spending without a change in the law, there is in fact a solution.
In the 2012 U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren entered into a voluntary “People’s Pledge” to curb outside spending. Every time a third party ran an advertisement on behalf of a candidate, that candidate would pay 50% of the cost of airing the ad to a charity of the other candidate’s choosing.
Only 9% of total spending in the race came from outside groups, and less than 40% of the advertising in it was negative, compared with 80% in races that didn’t have the pledge, according to research by Common Cause/MA. Moreover, the pledge amplified the significance of small donors (also known as ordinary citizens) while improving transparency in political advertising.
Imagine if we had campaigns like that in New York. We can: Common Cause/NY challenges the candidates in the mayoral primary runoff and general elections to enter into a People’s Pledge.
The influx of money in politics is out of control, compromising candidates and our entire democracy. Voters can’t compete against big-bucks donors willing to cut the winning check in a close election.
But this is by no means an inevitable outcome. Our political leaders can pass legislation compelling disclosure. Candidates can commit to pledges that discourage outside money instead of accepting the end run around our campaign finance laws.
And voters can hold them accountable for the choices they make.
Lerner is executive director of Common Cause/NY