People vote, volunteer, and plaster their car with bumper stickers, but the most primal way of showing support for your candidate is in the form of cold hard cash: a campaign contribution. Donors of all stripes give with their own special interests in mind. And with millions of dollars floating around in the span of a campaign, the smell of influence-peddling and bribery is often in the air.
Understandably, the term “campaign contribution” has become unsavory at best. Voters feel disconnected from the democratic system, which they perceive as transformed into a permanent campaign industry run by lobbyists, consultants, financed by others with deep pockets. Campaign-finance laws have done their best to prevent campaign cash from speaking louder than hard-working constituents, but campaign funds are like water: It’s flowing, and will find its way around the barriers. This is why the advent of the Internet may prove to do what legislation could not: level the playing field.
Why? Because a million small contributions are merely a click away. Passionate voters can instantly give to the campaign of their choosing. Sen. Barack Obama, for example—whose campaign passed on public financing so it could take private contributions—claims 3.1 million donors with an average donation of $86. The campaign’s been reaping record-breaking money from online contributions. In September he raised $5 million a day for a total of $150 million in one month alone!That’s not to say public financing may not still have its place. The intention behind public financing of elections is simple: The candidate who forswears private contributions can instead receive public funds. This way the candidate is supposedly clean of any influence implied by a private contribution. Also referred to as Clean Elections, the system is supposed to level the playing field to create more opportunities for candidates who may not have access to a lot of resources.
On a more local level, five states have public financing, as does the city of Portland, Oregon. Our state’s legislature passed a bill this year to allow local elections the option of public financing, too, but did not provide any funds, meaning any local efforts will have to figure out how to pay for the program. Considering the state of the economy and tightening local government budgets, proposing public funds for private campaign coffers will be a tough sell. Local candidates aiming for a fighting chance will do well to follow the lead of the national success stories in this campaign season.
The phenomenon of small-scale Internet contributions runs across ideology. Organizations like MoveOn.org and insurgent candidates like Ron Paul have raised serious money online. Democracy is adapting to the benefits of the information age. If public financing of elections is clean, there’s nothing dirty about someone joining like-minded others to support a candidate with a small-scale contribution.