Small Donor Distortion

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This article, from David Weigel at Reason Magazine, claims the rise of the small-dollar donor eliminates the need for public financing. He trots out the beaten horse of Howard Dean's presidential campaign as proof that the internet provides an effective counterbalance to any iniquity inherent to privately financed elections. While the internet is a valuable tool for enhancing participation in politics, Weigel is kidding himself if he thinks it has corrected the imbalance big-money fundraising creates.


Pundits are fond of the trope that the internet is the answer to fundraising inequality in campaigns; but many fail to acknowledge the huge gap between the "donor class" (about one-quarter of one percent of the population) and the rest of us when it comes to the amount of money we have to give, no matter through what medium, to campaigns. It's not as if 98% of America has been wandering around with a wad full of cash; eager to contribute to a candidate but peevishly averse to using the US Postal Service.


The internet is a tool, a tool by which a larger group of people can become connected with campaigns. But having access to the internet doesn't make you wealthier, and it doesn't bestow upon you exclusive invitations to high-dollar fundraisers. It takes 96 $25 small-dollar contributors to equal one big-dollar contributor giving the maximum $2,400 contribution in the presidential primary. Is a presidential candidate (already spending half her day fundraising) going to make 96 individual thank you calls, and take 5 minutes to ask each what their concerns are? Or is she going to make one call to that $2,400 giver and take five minutes with him?


When your relative importance to a candidate -- and then to an elected official -- is to a certain degree determined by your wealth, the system is unequal, and needs a change.


By all means give your small contribution and lend that measure of support to your candidate -- the involvement of more people in the political process is the ultimate goal of all of our efforts-- but in no way do small dollar contributors receive equal treatment on the campaign trail, or in the Oval Office under the current system.


A privately financed campaign system makes some voters more valuable than others, favors the speech and concerns of a small group of people over those of the vast majority of our population. And the internet, no matter how magical, won't cancel that out. Certainly not as Clean Elections-style public financing can do and has done, where a voter's ability to give a particular sum of money is independent of their value to the campaign, and independent of the candidate's concern for their opinions.


Equating money with civic participation is a narrow and immensely conflicted view of our electoral process. Mr. Weigel would do well to take a larger view of what public financing could mean for broader, and idealogically richer, civic participation in this country.