Lawrence Lessig on campaign reform

As a result of recent US Supreme Court rulings, rich people now have vastly greater freedom to contribute money to political campaigns and to candidates. It has now become possible for a single wealthy individual to bankroll a candidate for president and there are people like Sheldon Adelson who have made no secret of their intention to buy a candidate in this way. Maybe we will soon have a system in which wealthy people buy and sell and trade political parties and candidates the way they do now with professional sports teams and players. The candidates could wear clothing displaying the logos of their funders, like in NASCAR.

Most campaign reform advocates seek to try and curb the amount of money in elections but Lawrence Lessig thinks that the way to counter a few people who have lots of money is to create a system that enables many people to each contribute a little money so as to fight the wallets of the rich to at least a draw.

And if we accepted the responsibility of funding our elections through systems supporting small dollar donations — if all of us were relevant participants in the process — that would radically change the way in which policy in Washington is made. And that change is completely constitutional, even with this Supreme Court. There’s nothing the Supreme Court has said that would invalidate, for example, a voluntary voucher system where everybody had a $50 or $100 dollar voucher, which they could give to candidates who voluntarily opted into a system of small dollar contributions. This Court has again and again indicated that kind of reform is perfectly constitutional.

About 100 million people vote in elections in presidential years. If each had $100 to contribute, that would be $10 billion, enough to enable candidates to focus on a message that appeals to most voters rather that having to craft one that appeals to just rich people.


  1. Marshall says

    The frustrating thing, of course, is that that $10 billion could go towards cancer research instead, tripling the National Cancer Institute’s current funding.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Yes but a better government would better priorities for allocating funding.

  3. says

    I guess small dollar funding has some merit, but I can’t seem to get my head around why it should be necessary for Americans to buy a politician. So Un-American to me. Of course, if all of us don’t fight big money, and fight it now, things like voting and other rights will just be historic footnotes. As a newly minted non-believer I am still having difficulties calling on gods to damn Adelson, Kochs, SCOTUS, and all rethuglicans in general. But, if it didn’t work when I believed it, it won’t work now that I’m open-eyed about it. Enjoy you reportage and comments immensely.

  4. MadHatter says

    And a large number of voters could not afford to do such a thing. Democracy wasn’t supposed to be just for people who could pay.

  5. astrosmash says

    Well, on an upnote, look at how well buying a sure win for Mitt Romney went in the last presidential election….Voter supression is WAY more of a problem

  6. says

    If I understand it right, MadHatter, the concept is for the vouchers to be created and given to the voters to give to the place they choose. As a secondary benefit, it’d also be a stealth form of economic stimulus.

    I don’t think your numbers quite work, though, Mano; turnout is around 60% or so at best, and of those, 25% vote hardcore against their own economic interests. So you’d be looking at around a net 30 million people’s worth of vouchers going to populist causes (60% of 100M; 50% of those involved in cancelling one another out, as 15M go to the Tea Plutocrat Party).

    It’s still a good idea, and is a form of how we do it in Canada: our elections are all largely publicly financed, with fairly strict contributions laws. Also, the budgets are somewhat determined by performance in the last election: a party gets a certain amount per vote gained, on top of fixed amounts.

    The money sloshing about in your system cannot ever lead to anything but oligarchy.

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