The Wealth Primary
by cos, Thu Jun 29, 2006 at 07:43:34 AM EDT
This week's decision by the Supreme Court, striking down the spending and contribution limits in Vermont's public financing law, is a good time to reflect on why so many Americans want clean elections through public financing. Money distorts and corrodes politics in many different ways. Today, with June 30th filing deadlines approaching in federal and many state electons, one in particular is on my mind: the wealth primary.
Early in the 20th century, "white primaries" excluded black voters from determining party nominees in many states. They were considered legal under the theory that they were not "state action" - primaries were a private function carried out by party clubs, so equal protection did not apply. In the mid-20th century, the Supreme Court ruled "white primaries" unconstitutional, by reinterpreting "state action" to apply to processes that were clearly such a critical part of the electoral process. Being allowed to vote in the general election, but not to select your party's nominee, was an incomplete right to vote, and equal protection did apply.
Whites-only primaries are gone, but we still have another process that excludes whole classes of people from a critical part of the electoral process: Wealth primaries. At first, poll taxes were used to explicitly prevent the poor from voting, and these too were ruled unconstitutional. Over the years, another process has taken their place. Before a single vote is cast, candidates must raise money from private donors. Party leaders, and the press, look at the numbers, and candidates who haven't raised enough are written off. Dismissed as "not credible". Not covered on the front page, or much at all. In some cases, even pressured by party leaders to drop out of races.
I'm particularly sensitive to the wealth primary this year because of recent campaigns where I live (near Boston). At the beginning of this year, we had four candidates running for District Attorney, an open seat. One of those candidates was a state senator, and several candidates began running for his seat, which would become open since he was running for DA. One of those candidates was a state representative, as was one of the other candidates for DA, which opened up two seats in the state house for new candidates. And then, one by one, candidates dropped out of these races because they couldn't raise enough money to keep up with their opponents.
There is now just one candidate for DA - the one who raised so much money that it pushed the other three out of the race. The state senator decided to run for re-election, so all other candidates for his senate seat dropped out. Both state reps are also running for re-election. Now, I support most of these candidates. Nevertheless, at least four elections were all decided by contributors before any votes were cast!
Unlike white primaries, wealth primaries don't keep anyone from voting to choose the party nominee. What they do is reserve the process of selecting who will run primarily for the wealthy. A single donor who can afford to give $500 is worth as much as ten donors who can only afford $50. A single donor who can afford to give $2,000 is worth as much as a hundred donors who can only afford $20. In the Wealth Primary, it's one dollar, one vote.
This is also on my mind because I work for the man who developed legal theory behind the "wealth primary" argument, John Bonifaz. He founded the National Voting Rights Institute partly to advance this in the courts, and it was largely on the basis of this work that the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a fellowship, commonly known as a "genius award". He was a co-counsel in the defense of Vermont's public financing law.
Ironically, Bonifaz himself is in a wealth primary right now. As a new challenger running against a 12 year incumbent for secretary of state, it's sometimes a struggle to get the press to pay attention. In a healthy democracy, Bonifaz's expertise in election law and long history of effective voting rights advocacy both nationally and athome would be enough to mark him a credible candidate worth serious attention. But given his incumbent's 7-figure campaign warchest, Bonifaz's "credibility" will be determined, in the eyes of the press, by how much money people contribute before tomorrow's filing deadline.
Let's work hard to eliminate wealth primaries by instituting public financing of elections. But in the meantime, if you can afford to contribute, your favorite candidates (unfortunately) need your financial support today.
[ Slightly edited mostly to correct typos, update links, and clarify some sentences, but this is basically the same post I wrote in 2006 (so "This week" refers to a June 2006 decision). ]