Judy Nagel, Envision Board member and Upward Mobility Signals Team

Here in our United States, one important step toward upward mobility is meaningful participation in our democracy, and that usually begins at the ballot box. But how smart are we able to be as voters? What do we really know? To what extent are we at the mercy of individuals, corporations and organizations that simply have enough money to fool the voting public?

In 1992, $514 million was spent on federal and state campaigns in our country. By 2002, that figure had increased to $1.15 billion, a 224% increase in just 10 years. In response, John McCain and Russ Feingold introduced a bi-partisan bill to put guardrails around campaign financing, banning soft money donations and independent electioneering. Congress passed it. Twenty-four states, including Wisconsin, prohibited or restricted corporate and/or union financing.

That all changed with the 2010 Supreme Court decision called Citizens United, which made those guardrails illegal and enabled corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections. The court determined that “freedom of speech” as guaranteed by the Constitution was not specifically limited to individuals, so it could be interpreted as extending to groups of people who could use their money to make public statements. This is loosely interpreted as giving corporations and political action groups the same right to free speech as an individual. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “With its decision, the Supreme Court overturned election spending restrictions that date back more than 100 years. Previously, the court had upheld certain spending restrictions, arguing that the government had a role in preventing corruption. But in Citizens United, a bare majority of the justices held that ‘independent political spending’ did not present a substantive threat of corruption, provided it was not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign.” 

Now “dark money” – money donated to politically active nonprofit organizations with no requirement to reveal their donors – is flooding into state, federal and even local campaigns. In 2016, campaigns in the U.S. spent $6.5 billion. That increased to $14.8 billion in 2020, and to nearly $17 billion in the 2022 midterm election! (Remember, it was a mere $1.15 billion expenditure that triggered the McCain/Feingold bill just over 20 years ago.) Even worse, that money is clearly being integrated directly into campaigns through purchased media, billboards, mailings and more.

We can all see where this is going. And what will be the effect? Legislators are now spending 30-70% of their time dialing for dollars. According to the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, “Incoming lawmakers are instructed to spend upwards of four hours per day raising money, which is time taken away from the legislative responsibilities of being an elected official.” Already ten years ago, a successful House member raised, on average, more than $1 million; the average successful Senator raised well over $10 million. All that fund raising takes time – time and energy they are not spending with their constituents or with the issues to understand the impact of proposed legislation.            

What are the actual consequences of such a trend? Foreign-owned corporations can finance politicians who are likely to look favorably on their foreign interests. The largest, wealthiest corporations can coerce legislators into passing legislation that will favor them over their smaller, more entrepreneurial competitors. And a big winner is the group of companies that produce the endless parade of disgusting, dark, negative political ads – ads that pander to foreign interests to divide us here at home. Meanwhile, whose money is looking out for the needs of the struggling voter?

The good news is that an error of judgment on the part of the Supreme Court can be corrected. Eight such Supreme Court errors have been corrected in the past with amendments. Already 169 Wisconsin cities, towns, villages and counties have passed a resolution with overwhelming majorities calling for campaign finance reform. Twenty-two states have passed a resolution calling on Congress to initiate the For our Freedom Amendment for ratification.

Until we amend the U.S. Constitution, funding of campaigns, ballot initiatives and elections is totally vulnerable to special interest control. How much dark money, with no transparency, will finance the 2024 Presidential campaign?! And what is the real cost of that dark money that so successfully divides us? Wisconsin citizens across the state are leading the effort to bring real democracy back to the people in partnership with American Promise. Meet some of them here.

Consider what all that money could do for the good of the ordinary American family. Could those dollars be better spent on something like cancer research? (Consider that cancer care costs $200 billion annually, but only $6.4 billion is spent on research.) It takes five generations in the United States for a low-income child to achieve mean income. In Norway, Finland and Sweden, that goal is achieved in three generations and, in Denmark, in two. It is no coincidence that those four countries have national policies and funding that support the earliest childhood education and development, a national policy supporting merit over privilege. Imagine what we could achieve as a society if we invested that $17 billion campaign money in medical research or early childhood education and development!

Although three million children in poverty qualify for Head Start here in the United States, available funding serves only one million. Head Start is a federal program that promotes school readiness from birth to age five, with an emphasis on cognitive, social and emotional development. From birth to three years is the most critical period for a child’s neurological development. Currently $12 billion is spent to prepare low-income children to become productive adults, creating a globally competitive future work force. Two million more children miss the opportunity for critical growth and development. Imagine what a small portion of that campaign money could do for their upward mobility!

What if those excess special interest and lobby funds described above were taxed to provide real investment in improving economics for all Americans? But, much of the time, we don’t even know their source. We don’t even know whether they are American dollars or foreign dollars supporting American elections. What we don’t know can hurt us.