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Post date: January 3 2013

Op-Ed: Restoring path of true democracy

Op-Ed Published in Politico

By Eric T. Schneiderman

Last November, Americans got a glimpse of what can happen to our representative democracy when wealth determines our degree of participation in the electoral process. As we enter the new year, the vast majority of us would now agree that unlimited spending by wealthy individuals and corporations is bad for the American electoral process and that unlimited secret spending is even worse.

Unfortunately, the 2012 election was just the beginning. In a decision last summer — American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock — the Supreme Court struck down a ban on independent expenditures in state and local elections, so now races for judge, sheriff and district attorney are the targets for massive independent expenditures, despite the obvious risk of corruption that this entails.

Money in politics has rarely incited the level of voter indignation necessary to win reforms, as many voters have become acclimated to the system of legalized bribery that is corroding America’s democratic process.

This year’s elections changed that. The Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, and the orgy of election spending they have unleashed, have provoked unprecedented public revulsion. Advocates in every cause who have seen sensible legislation derailed by backroom influence peddling can’t afford to let this moment pass without galvanizing a new movement to clean up our electoral system.

Fortunately, there seems to be strategic activity in three distinct areas that could provide the framework for such a movement. First, we need to develop a long-term strategy to overturn Citizens United. Second, we must demand total transparency and make it easy for all to know where campaign cash comes from and where it goes. And third, we need to mitigate the effects of Citizens United with public campaign financing systems, such as our successful program in New York City.

In the long run, reformers need to overturn Citizens United. An increasing number of lawyers and public officials across the country believe it will soon be vulnerable to a challenge. Its unsupported assertion that independent expenditures “do not give rise to corruption or appearance of corruption” defies common sense and our actual experience in the 2012 election. A few more elections, and the flaws in this absurd argument should be clear to all.

In a July Gallup Poll, Americans ranked reducing the corruption of government as the second-highest priority for the next president — right behind job creation. Fully 87 percent said it is extremely important or very important. Clearly, those Americans are concerned about corruption and the appearance of corruption in our electoral system. With a smart, focused litigation strategy, Citizens United will go the way of Plessy v. Ferguson.

Second, we need transparency because it allows people to know who is trying to gain undue influence. Voters are not stupid. They can consider the source if they know that a negative ad is financed by someone with a vested interest in the outcome of a race. But since Citizens United, “social welfare” groups, incorporated as 501(c)(4)s nonprofits, have increasingly been used to run campaign ads. This has blown a gaping hole in our disclosure laws. 501(c)(4)s are barred by law from having campaign activity as their primary purpose. Nevertheless, they have funded hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of TV ads in the past two election cycles, and unlike political action committees, they are not required to disclose their donors.

My office is taking immediate action to shed light on these “dark money” groups in New York state, and protect donors to nonprofits. We have issued regulations that will require such sham nonprofits to disclose the percentage of their expenditures that go to federal, state and local electioneering, including issue ads. Groups that spend at least $10,000 annually to influence state and local elections in New York will be required to file itemized schedules of expenses and contributions. Those disclosures will be released to the public, protecting prospective donors from misleading solicitations, and informing voters about the funding of campaign ads.

Finally, we must expand public financing for elections. Current Supreme Court precedents make it impossible to put a ceiling on campaign spending by special interests, but we can raise the floor with public financing, as New York City has, giving candidates who aren’t controlled by big donors a fair chance to compete.

Opponents argue that tax-payer financing of elections is too expensive. I would argue that the cost pales in comparison to the price tag for corruption. Political campaigns cost money. If candidates are going to be indebted to someone for funding their campaign, better it should be to the public as a whole than some narrow special interest.

The mutually reinforcing nature of economic injustice and political inequality in our campaign financing system poses a clear and present danger to the American project of self government. More eyes are now opened to this danger than ever. Let’s seize this moment to limit the influence of money in politics and get America back on the path of genuine democracy.