The Donor Class: Campaign Finance, Democracy, and Participation

Spencer Overton, The Donor Class: Campaign Finance, Democracy, and Participation, 153 U. Pa. L. Rev. 73 (2004).

Abstract:  This Article uses the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent opinion in McConnell v. FEC to argue that the law should play a central role in reducing the impact of disparities in wealth on political participation. In upholding large parts of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, the Court in McConnell acknowledged the adverse impact of concentrated wealth on widespread democratic participation and self-government. Even in the aftermath of the reforms upheld in McConnell, however, a small, wealthy and homogenous donor class continues to make relatively large contributions that fund the bulk of American politics. Less than one percent of the U.S. population makes financial contributions over $200 to federal candidates, and these contributions represent the vast majority of funds that candidates receive from individuals. Of those who contribute over $200, approximately 85 percent have household incomes of $100,000 or more, 70 percent are male, and 96 percent are white. This donor class effectively determines which candidates possess the resources to run viable campaigns. Instead of preventing corruption or equalizing funds between candidates, this Article proposes that the primary goal of future reforms should be to reduce the impact of wealth and empower more citizens to participate in the funding of campaigns. On average, candidates should receive a larger percentage of their funds from a greater number of people in smaller contribution amounts. After responding to class-blind campaign reform opponents’ claims that the impact of wealth on democratic participation warrants minimal concern, this Article examines concrete proposals. Reforms like matching funds and tax credits for smaller contributions, combined with emerging technology, would enable more Americans to make contributions and would enhance their voices in our democracy. Consistent with the Court’s approach in McConnell, reforms that empower smaller contributors prompt candidates and political committees to raise funds from a greater number of persons and tangibly benefit public participation in political debate.

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