How to Strengthen the Role of Small Political Donors in Our Democracy

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July 6, 2011; Source: Campaign Finance Institute | On the same day that the Internal Revenue Service dropped its tepid audit of big money political donors (like the Kochs and others on the right donating to Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and a similar panoply of wealthy donors on the left recently recruited by former Obama Administration officials Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney for their New Priorities USA), the Campaign Finance Institute issued a report with an idea for “diluting the power of the few by increasing the number and importance of low-dollar donors and volunteers” in campaign finance. CFI’s analysis based on campaign contribution records from six Great Lakes states suggests that “a participation-centered policy could make a dramatic difference.”  How? 

CFI’s research says that in five of the six states, big money dominated the campaign finance dynamic. Only in Minnesota did the majority of campaign contributions come from small donors giving $250 or less. Wisconsin wasn’t bad with 34 percent from small donors, but for the other states in the study, small donors were only 3 to 12 percent of total campaign contributions.

CFI suggests that a program of “public matching funds for small donors would radically change the sources of campaign funds.”  CFI tested the idea of matching the first $50 from every individual donor on a five-to-one basis. CFI says this method would bring the small donor portion of the other five Great Lakes states in the study up to Minnesota’s level.

Is this a nonprofit concern? Of course. Nonprofits in their marrow stand for small “d” democracy. Most nonprofits are small and are connected to small donors who make charitable contributions through payroll deductions or tithing at their churches or personal responses to direct mail solicitations. Those same donors are often the small campaign donors whose voices are swamped by the power and money of the big donors funneling their moneys through Rove and Burton or for that matter to the Republican and Democratic national campaign apparatus.

It is hard to say that CFI’s analysis is right or wrong, but anything that looks at right-sizing the influence of smaller donors in the political process is well worth examining by nonprofits committed to strengthening the civic culture of the U.S. that is unfortunately fraying under the weight of big money and secret donors.—Rick Cohen