Joan Mandle, executive director of Democracy Matters, was kind enough to share with us her thoughts on some of the important issues confronting the American election process at this time. Democracy Matters is a national nonpartisan organization dedicated to getting private money out of elections. It is the student branch of Common Cause, and in partnership these groups seek to remove the corruptive influence of money in politics, and ensure the accountability of elected officials, by establishing a viable system of publicly financed (or “clean”) elections on the state and national levels.
Democracy Matters’ staff and student organizers have been at work since 2001, when NBA player Adonal Foyle founded the organization. Six states and two localities already have clean elections, and Democracy Matters hopes to expand that list in its campaign to deepen democracy.
What do you see as the benefits of publicly financed elections?
The benefits of publicly financed elections are many. Most basically they help to restore the single most important aspect of a democracy, namely that each citizen has an equal opportunity to influence political decision-making. By enabling candidates for elective office to run without depending on private donors, they free those candidates, if elected, to be responsive and accountable to the electorate rather than to their big contributors.
Public financing also ensures a wider and more diverse group of candidates and therefore more choice for voters. In Maine, Arizona and other places with public financing, more women, minority members and non-lawyers have run and won office. Clearly it especially enables people who are not themselves wealthy and/or do not have close ties with wealthy individuals to become serious candidates. It also means that people outside of a candidate’s district and/or state are not his/her primary influence due to large campaign contributions. It also creates more competitive campaigns and fewer uncontested election campaigns, as incumbents are more likely to face challenges from serious opponents.
And finally, it has the potential to restore confidence in the political system and produce higher voter turnout. Citizens soon recognize that with publicly funded candidates running for office they have the ability to exercise equal influence — rather than being silenced by the campaign contributions of wealthy donors.
How does the Citizens United decision affect Democracy Matter’s work?
The 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court harmed democracy because it gave corporations the ability to flood our political system with unlimited dollars. But the fact is that it also gave Democracy Matters’ organizing a boost. So many people were outraged by the widely publicized decision because it shined a light on the dangerous influence of private money in our political system.
Individuals representing corporations have long had disproportionate political influence—bought by their large campaign donations– on who runs, who wins, and how they vote once elected. But this decision allowed the corporations themselves to spend as much money from their treasuries as they liked in order to influence elections and political speech in the country. Many people who had not been convinced of the urgent need for campaign finance reform and public financing changed their minds following the decision. They became willing to join with Democracy Matters in the fight to challenge the power of money in politics.
What are your thoughts on money as symbolic speech? Do you think the analogy holds up? And do you think it should trump other constitutional rights and liberties?
I am a strong advocate of free speech rights. That said, I believe that the current ability of a small group of wealthy campaign donors to control our political process and disempower ordinary citizens constitutes a major crisis for our democracy. As a result, I do not think that free speech arguments are enough to dissuade the courts from allowing a robust public financing option to be implemented at both the state and federal level.
I believe that such a system would significantly increase the openness and availability of political speech in this country by allowing greater citizen participation in and engagement with politics. It would begin to overcome the cynicism and hostility to politics that is now endemic among American citizens and that produces shamefully low levels of voter turnout during our elections.
What do you think of the lawsuit in Arizona that was just heard by the Supreme Court, McComish v. Bennett? Do you think clean elections can survive without the matching funds provisions if they are ruled unconstitutional?
I believe that a ruling that triggered matching funds are unconstitutional in a public financing system would be a very bad decision, and one that threatens public financing generally.
However, Democracy Matters and our national allies are now working on proposing “fixes” to existing public financing laws that would allow them to survive even with such a ruling. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University is the primary architect of alternative models of public financing that they believe can be ruled constitutional, even by as conservative and ideological a Supreme Court as the present one.
Do you think the three Iowa Supreme Court justices who lost their seats this past November were ousted because of spending on political advertisements? Does Democracy Matters have any solutions for guaranteeing judicial independence?
I believe that whether or not the Iowa justices lost their seats in 2010 because of spending on political advertisements (I personally think money likely played a major role in this), only public financing can provide assurance that judges remain impartial when hearing cases. Especially this is the case because trial lawyers constitute a high percentage of donors to judges in those states where they must run for office. The existence of a conflict of interest in such cases is so obvious as to be ludicrous. However, it deeply threatens citizens’ confidence and trust in our judicial system.
In states like North Carolina or New Mexico where judicial public financing campaign laws have been implemented, many justices have made use of the option of public financing in order to avoid depending on private contributors. This would be an important step in ensuring that merit rather than money is the most important factor in electing members of the bench.
Redistricting will be on our radar for about another year. Do you see any relationship between money in politics and the drawing of fair lines in states that rely on their legislatures to complete the process?
Money in politics is intimately tied to the redistricting process which in most states is accomplished by partisan and self-serving legislators determined to protect their majorities. Again American citizens and the process of democracy are the big losers. The impact of money in determining who gets elected means that it also influences the redistricting process. Incumbents typically have a huge fundraising advantage over challengers and not surprisingly the incumbent re-election rate in many states as well as the Congress is well over 90%. You can hardly lose if you out-raise your opponent, something incumbents regularly do – both raise more money and win!
Joan Mandle is a professor of sociology at Colgate University in New York. She has also taught anthropology and directed the Women’s Studies Program at the university. Mandle has extensive experience with grassroots organizing and campaigning, and has published several works on social change and social movements. She has won multiple awards in recognition of her activism and service, and we thank her for contributing to the StateofElections. If you would like more information about Democracy Matters or Joan Mandle, please visit http://www.democracymatters.org/.
Shanna Reulbach is a first-year student at William & Mary Law School.