On Nov. 4, our democracy was denied because the Supreme Court ruled to allow big money, not voters, to play a defining role in our elections. That said, citizens in the East Bay restored the hope within us all that when people organize and exercise their right to vote, they can demand democracy and trump big money.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 2014 held the most expensive midterm election to date, costing an unprecedented $3.67 billion. This figure doesn’t take into account unreported dark money and money spent early in the election cycle by outside groups.
With $1.75 billion spent on Republican races and $1.64 billion on Democratic races by candidates, parties, committees and outside groups, big money is not a partisan problem but an American problem. According to CRP’s analysis of the election’s results, in House races, the candidate who spent the most prevailed 94.2 percent of the time, and in Senate races, 81.8 percent.
The Supreme Court opened the floodgates for this money to pour into our election process through two rulings. In Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the Court ruled that corporations, unions and wealthy individuals have the right to spend unlimited amounts of money — so long as it is done “independently” of candidates — claiming that corporations have the same constitutional rights as people and that the money they spend is protected as a form of free speech. In McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), the Court tossed aside the overall cap on an individual’s direct donations to candidates, PACs and parties in one election cycle, eliminating one of the last limits on the ability of those with wealth to project their influence on policy.
The problem is that these decisions have allowed big money to buy our elections and destroy the democratic spirit of politics, effectively disempowering American citizens to participate in the electoral process. This decrease in participation is reflected in the drastic decrease in the number of individual donors — with those contributing more than $200 representing just . 21 percent of the population — who footed the bills of candidates’ campaigns this election season. A democracy should be a government in which all citizens participate and have the ability to influence the proposal, development and establishment of laws that govern society. What we are experiencing, however, is a political situation where a select few control the rules of the game, as candidates are almost completely dependent on financial contributions in order to thrive.
More importantly, this political climate has resulted in too many of us not voting, which is where our people power lies. Voter turnout reached historic lows this election, with fewer than 37 percent of eligible voters nationally casting ballots. Nonwhite groups, women and youth were not well represented among voters. We would hope that those who have less power in society at large would at least see the electoral process as a place for their voices to be heard — clearly they do not. The millions of ads, mailers and calls that went out this year failed to get people to the polls. Perhaps Americans are realizing that, often, there is no candidate or proposition for them and that the role of the people in politics has been reduced to a farce. Big money does not create informed voters: It renders an entire population powerless within and disenchanted with their political system. Is the axiom government for the people or for the uber rich?
Nonetheless, all hope is not lost: There were some instances where democracy beat out big money in this election. Take the East Bay, where it was made clear that when people organize and turn out in large numbers, they win. In Berkeley, voters approved Measure D, a penny-per-ounce soda tax, by a three-to-one margin, despite the $2.1 million spent by the beverage industry that opposed it. The Richmond Progressive Alliance swept the elections for mayorial and city council elections, despite the fact that their spending was a drop in the bucket compared to Chevron’s nearly $3-million campaign — $72 per voter — against it. With Measure P, Berkeley voters also claimed their place among more than 550 cities and 16 states that reject the Supreme Court’s doctrines of corporate personhood and call for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
The bottom line is that American democracy cannot continue to withstand this tidal wave of money. We must build upon these wins to create a government truly of, by and for the people. This is not just about the results of one election. This is about our future and shaping the kind of society in which we desire to live. Our inaction only goes to serve those benefiting from the current system. We as students — and as future politicians, doctors, teachers, businesswomen and community leaders — have an obligation to reform this atrocity of a democracy.
Register to vote, contact your elected representative about supporting disclosure legislation, sign a petition in support of a 28th Amendment to overturn Citizens United, organize a teach-in — make your voice heard. As engaged and active citizens, we will demand change. We will demand democracy. What other choice is there?
Courtney Fuller, Woody Little and Morgan Prentice are all current UC Berkeley students and members of Common Cause of Berkeley. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, good government organization that does not endorse candidates and took no position on any of the aforementioned measures.