What We Do
US elections are now subject to a de facto "wealth primary" that effectively excludes nonwealthy voters and candidates from meaningful participation in the political process. The wealth primary is the process by which the person who collects the most money the "winner" of the wealth primary" almost always goes on to capture his or her party's nomination. It also means that those campaign contributors with the most money or access to money, choose the candidate who almost invariably goes on to win. Candidates who cannot compete in the wealth primary stand little or no chance of competing in the formal state-run elections. While all US citizens nominally enjoy the right to stand for elective office, exponential increases in the cost of running for office now ensure that low income citizens cannot mount viable campaigns on their own behalf, nor can they identify candidates reflective of their own backgrounds on the ballot. Those who cannot compete in the wealth primary cannot find representation in government.
The Facts: Our Money-Driven Elections
Our current system of financing electoral campaigns now stands where the poll tax and the high candidate filing fee systems once stood.
The facts speak for themselves:
- Less than 1% of the population provides over 80% of all money in federal elections. (Poverty & Race Research Action Council 1999)
- Over 60 percent of contributions to winning congressional candidates came in amounts over $1000. (US PIRG Report 1/3/01)
- Only one-ninth of one percent of the voting-age population nearly 232,000 people gave $1000 or more to federal candidates in 1999-2000. (Public Campaign 2/01 analysis)
- Less than two percent of Americans give candidate contributions over $200. (US PIRG Report 1/3/01)
- A 1997 national survey of major congressional campaign contributors (i.e. those who give $200 or more) revealed that 95% of such donors are white, and that 81% have annual incomes of $100,000 or more. (Green, Herrnson, Powell, and Wilcox "Individual Congressional Campaign Contributors: Wealthy, Conservative and Reform Minded" Joyce Foundation 1998)
In 2000, winners of seats in the U.S. House out-raised and out-spent their opponents by almost 3-to-1, as winners raised an average of $916,629 and losers on average raised $309,213. In the Senate, winners raised $7,307,402 while losers raised $3,594,447. (www.opensecrets.org)
- Candidates who raised the most money won 93 percent of the seats up for election in Congress in 2000. (USPIRG Report 1/3/01)
- The funding of political campaigns is now increasing at roughly four times the annual inflation rate. (BNA Money and Politics Report 1/24/01).
There are moments in our nation's history when a tradition once thought of as constitutional becomes constitutional no more. The history of the right to vote in this country includes, in fact, a series of such moments. Once held only by white male property owners, the right to vote has been expanded continuously as disenfranchised peoples have organized and struggled for an America that lives up to its legal and moral promise of political equality. Over time, the nation has seen the elimination of numerous barriers to voting rights from property, race, gender, and age qualifications to exclusionary white primaries, poll taxes, high candidate filing fees, and vote dilution schemes.
Today, we must face up to the newest voting-rights barrier: the "wealth primary." Those who do not raise enough money that is, who lose the wealth primary rarely appear on the ballot, much less win office. The rest of us, the vast majority of American people, are shut out of a critical part of our election process. Our right to vote, including our right to equal and meaningful participation, is debased and undermined. Like the poll taxes of the past, our campaign finance system has been assumed to be constitutional. Legislators, citizens, and ultimately the courts must recognize the reality of our degraded electoral system, must acknowledge that it discriminates against those who cannot "pay-to-play", and must admit, at last, that this system is constitutional no more.
For more information on the Wealth Primary: