Berkeley Forum hosts Lawrence Lessig talk on money in politics

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Lawrence Lessig speaks to UC Berkeley about the role of money in disenfranchising voters at a Berkeley Forum event Friday.

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At a public address held Friday by the Berkeley Forum, Harvard Law professor and open-Internet advocate Lawrence Lessig spoke about the corrupting influence of money on politics.

During the event, “Corrupting the Vote,” Lessig spoke to the Berkeley community about the two types of elections concurrent in America in his view. One is the discrete election in which citizens 18 and older vote for their candidate of choice, the other a continuous “money election” in which the largest contributors to multimillion dollar campaigns influence the landscape of the elections.

“They vote first, we vote second,” Lessig said. “In the new America, the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent controls that first step in the election.”

According to Lessig, the corruption is not a clandestine quid pro quo but a system in which candidates are disproportionately dependent on a small fraction of benefactors who represent 0.05 percent of America. Lessig added that about 150,000 Americans are the relevant benefactors of campaigns in the United States today.

The issue of campaign finance reform has long been debated. In 2010, the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court determined that political spending is a protected form of free speech and removed cash contribution limits for corporations and unions.

In October, another Supreme Court case, McCutcheon v. FEC, examined campaign finance regulations, specifically the aggregate spending cap on donations to candidates and political parties, which, if lifted, may further narrow the pool of people whom politicians depend on for fundraising.

However, Lessig said the court’s decisions are only one factor in the ongoing issue of the influence of money on politics.

“We have got to focus our reform energy at the place where the change has to happen,” Lessig said. “(Americans) need to extend the franchise of funding the same way we extended the franchise of voting.”

Lessig proposed changing the campaign finance system into one driven by public funding for public elections. His plan would provide those qualified to vote with a $50 tax rebate voucher from the federal government. Voters could then contribute this amount to candidates who have agreed to fund their campaigns solely on vouchers and private contributions of $100 or less from citizens who share the candidate’s home state.

During a brief interview and a Q&A session — moderated by UC Berkeley freshman Carter Keeling — audience members asked questions regarding super PACs and political sponsorship of finance reform.

“We — not the 99 percent, the 99.95 percent — can find the way to inspire people to make the march and the demands that this reform takes,” Lessig said.

The Berkeley Forum is a nonpartisan undergraduate student group founded by Pierre Bourbonnais, a former staff member of The Daily Californian. The next event, a debate on unmanned drones, is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 20.

Contact Jeff Landa at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JeffLanda.