Home » Democracy » Buying Back the U.S. Senate

Buying Back the U.S. Senate

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Dark money from anonymous donors is pouring into the 2014 Senate races. According to Jon Terbush at The Week magazine, midterm election spending this year will “blow away” prior campaign spending records.”Spending by outside groups in particular is on pace to reach an unprecedented level this cycle,” he wrote. “To this point in 2010, outside groups had spent $10.4 million… to date, such groups have spent more than three times as much on the 2014 races.”He offered this graph which show the 2014 spending to date:

There is no doubt that big donations are flooding into politics since the Citizen’s United decision by the Supreme Court. Another factor is the proliferation of highly political 501 C non-profit organizations. More than ever these organization take advantage of IRS policy to fund issue advertizing for their partisan candidates. All this money is narrowly concentrated. It comes from a few billionaires or from a relatively small number of special interest groups. Senators become obligated to their wealthy donors while the majority of citizens are not being well served. Much disaffection between citizens and their government has resulted from special interest politics, and this often suits corporate interests.
The biggest price tags for US Senate seats this year are in Georgia and North Carolina. Spending between these races is expected to be nearly $50 million dollars, most of which will come from large donations. How on earth can average citizens compete with such big donors for the attention and fidelity of their Senate representatives? There is growing certainty that our Republic no longer represents the interests of most ordinary citizens.Here’s part of the problem. Big numbers are very hard to comprehend. Our brains aren’t wired to grasp numbers in the millions or billions. So if we want to understand how expensive our elections really are, we have to break down the cost into manageable units.

Using Senate campaign cost estimates from the McClatchy news organization, and some census data, the following table breaks down Senate election costs by population segments. For example, the Michigan race is expected to cost $13.9 million this year, a lot of money, yet it breaks down to $1.85 for every adult living in the state. This is very close to the national average of $1.87 per adult for this Senate elections cycle. The really expensive Senate elections this year, on a per adult basis, are actually in Alaska and Arkansas where spending will be nearly $12 for every vote that is likely to be cast. Consider also that Senate elections take place every six years. That works out to just $2 per year per likely voter in the most expensive Senate seat, or about $1.10 for each Alaskan adult.

*Estimates are from the McClatchy News Service as published in the New Jersey Star Ledger.Here then are some numbers that most people can comprehend. The average cost to an individual for this very expensive Senate election works out to just 31¢ per year per Senator. This is all it would cost you to buy back your vote.Elections cost money. To get the money interests out of politics people have to put money into it. We can’t let billionaires and special interest group buy the Congress at such bargain prices. It is time to step to the plate and publicly finance our Republic.

Yes we need to undo Citizen’s United and make clear that corporations are not people. We need to do a lot of things, but nothing will restore our voice in government better than fronting the cost of election campaigns. When politicians need both our money and our vote we will have their full attention. Even a few dollars a month would go a long way to fund our democracy.  It would do more to help the poor and support the middle class than almost anything else we could buy. We could even discount campaign finance contributions for everyone who registers to vote.

As essential as voting is to fulfilling our civic duty, funding our Republic and being knowledgeable and engaged in public issues are just as critical.

When Ben Franklin was asked what kind of government we have as he left the Constitutional Convention of 1787 he famously remarked, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Now we know what he meant. It’s time to take back our Republic from special interest groups and quirky billionaires. This time let’s invest our time, talents and money to keep it in the hands of ordinary people where it belongs.

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