A better way to fuel a democracy

Sen. Bernie Sanders has raised 84 percent of his money in increments of $200 or less.
Sen. Bernie Sanders has raised 84 percent of his money in increments of $200 or less. Bloomberg News

As happened four years ago and four years before that, the presidential campaign is making clear the power of political money. There must be a better way.

In third quarter reports filed last week, candidates reported receiving a combined $144 million. That’s not the half of it. Federal law caps direct contributions to candidates at $2,700 per donor per election, but there’s no limit on donations to super PACs. That’s where the big money flows.

In the first half of the year, donors gave $211 million to political action committees established to benefit specific candidates, the vast majority of the money from a handful of rich donors. Among the many flaws in the system, outdated federal law doesn’t require people operating presidential super PACs to file disclosures for the second half of 2015 until the beginning of 2016.

The New York Times described that handful: 158 rich people and their families accounted for $176 million in the first half of this year. This, in a nation of 321 million people, and 220 million citizens of voting age.

A mere 47 people have given $103 million to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s super PAC, The Washington Post notes. Five have given $37 million to the committee established to help Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and 16 donors accounted for $17 million to the committee to benefit Hillary Clinton.

The Times noted that more than 50 of the 158 are on the Forbes list of billionaires. One of them, Chicago hedge fund billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin, reportedly earns about $68.5 million a month. The $300,000 he gave to Republican presidential candidates is the equivalent of a typical wage earner donating $21.17.

Therein lies a solution.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission and cases since then have allowed huge super PAC donations from rich individuals and corporations.

But as the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C., has noted, $10 and $25 in direct donations to candidates are a click away in the digital age.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate who proudly proclaims that he neither has nor wants the help of a super PAC, has tapped a deep vein in donors who can give only a few dollars.

In his disclosure filed Thursday, Sanders reported raising nearly $40 million for his presidential campaign through the end of September. Of that, $33.6 million, or 84 percent, came in donations of $200 or less, according to the FEC.

By contrast, Clinton raised $77 million in that time. Donors giving $200 or less accounted for 20 percent of her contributions, or $16 million.

On the GOP side, Ben Carson reports receiving $23.5 million in donations of $200 or less out of the $31 million he has raised, or 74 percent. Bush has raised $24 million, but only $1.4 million from small dollar donors.

A recent Bloomberg Politics poll found that 78 percent of Americans want the courts to overturn Citizens United. With Congress in gridlock, that won’t happen anytime soon, but progress still is possible.

Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., has proposed legislation to encourage small-dollar donors by granting them a $25 tax credit and by matching small donations with federal funds. Even if Congress won’t approve it, perhaps states could consider such an idea.

In California, campaign finance experts are contemplating a promising initiative for 2016 that would overhaul the state’s campaign finance system and make the process significantly more transparent.

Meanwhile, people of modest means who become enamored of a candidate can hit the donate button. Unlike a $68 million-a-month hedge fund mogul who gives $300,000, they probably won’t get face time with candidates. But as Carson and Sanders are proving, $21.17 here and $21.17 there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.