Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Case for Publicly Financed Elections: A Love Letter to Lessig

By Henry GraneyPublished November 11, 2015

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There has been a recent call for publicly financed elections following the rulings of Citizen United. One presidential candidate has made that call his entire platform. But is the corrupt cycle of privately-financed elections too large to tackle for a one-principle president?
By Henry Graney 11/11/2015
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    Money in politics seems like too big of a hurdle to tackle. The presence of special interest groups in politics has become the norm. The influence of K Street and the lobbyists it sends up the Hill has increased in recent years, deepening the imbalance between those who have money to spend on politics and those who don't. But in the recent election and perhaps on the coattails of the popular presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' large union and donor base, there has been a call for publicly funded elections. A call that rallied Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor, to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

    The money needed for elections to be won is astronomical, with a $1 billion asking price for the presidency. The majority of this money is provided by Super PACs, interest groups, and lobbyists all using private sector profits to fund public elections. This practice has proliferated after the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that corporate contributions to political campaigns was a form of free speech. The Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commissions opened the door for unlimited corporate spending on elections.

    The influence of private spending on public officials does not stop at elections, however. When Leslie Byrne, a Democrat from Virginia, arrived in Washington, she was told by a colleague to "always lean to the green." And it's true—¢even when in office, members of  Congress spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time raising money in order to win reelection and strengthen their own party.This has caused a skewing of modern political thought. When asked what measured a politician's success, senior communications adviser to Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Jim Manley promptly responded, "Getting re-elected." This sobering realization means that a politician's success is directly measured by their ability to fundraise.

    This disturbing and increasingly prevalent influence on public affairs has one major opponent, besides the American people. A Harvard legal theorist in his fifties, Lawrence Lessig has long fought the battle for campaign-finance reform. After creating the Mayday PAC, an American crowd-funded non-partisan Super PAC in 2014 aimed at electing officials who promise to fight political corruption, Lessig resigned from the PAC to announce his presidential campaign. In running for president, Lessig has but one goal: to overhaul the role of money in politics. Lessig argues that every other sensible reform is an impossibility if this "corruption of the system" is not resolved first. He places expediency on this issue and states that restoring a representative democracy should be the nation's top priority.

    His solution to the problem of big money in politics is relatively simple. He states that "If the problem is members [of Congress] spending an extraordinary amount of time fundraising from the tiniest slice of America, the solution is to have them spend less time fundraising but fundraise from a wider slice of Americans, to spread it out, to spread the funder influence so that we restore the idea of dependence upon the people alone." He calls for citizen-funded campaigns that allow a shift in power from the corporations to the public, to the larger percentage of America. Lessig cites proposals such as the Fair Elections Now Act, the American Anti-Corruption Act, and the Grassroots Democracy Act, all of which aim for "citizen-funded campaigns" and placing the power of politics back into the hands of the people. That is an idea that I think everyone can get behind.

    But, perhaps not everyone can get behind Lessig. In this Democrat election cycle, little attention has gone to Lessig. And perhaps it is because his message is a little too unconventional. Self-identifying as a "referendum president," Lessig promises to step down as president once reform is enacted and let the VP assume all of his duties. His mission is noble, though extreme, and perhaps that is why he has been met with relatively no media coverage or popular support . He has been overlooked for the first Democratic debate and his future does not seem to hold a future Democratic debate in the cards. It seems that this presidential candidate, whose mission is one that many Americans-in fact, one-third of Americans—¢cite as their top concern is dead in the water.

    The uneven financing of campaigns has ensured that the interests of the few trump the needs of the many as special interest groups and individual activists sway elections and the future of our public officials. This is an issue that all realize as a priority and would do well to correct. Yet, it seems that the wrench that Lessig throws into the engine is shattered by the roar of private interests in politics.