Responsive Politics: Creative Solutions to Reduce the Influence of Money in Politics

Over $6 billion was spent in the 2012 elections. To keep up with this steadily increasing spending, elected officials frequently put in as much time raising money as governing. Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, and subsequent court rulings, an increasing amount of the money being spent on campaigns has come from untraceable and anonymous sources seeking to garner influence over politics and policy.

In this environment, it is not surprising that most Americans believe that members of Congress are more interested in serving special interests than their constituents. Yet, comprehensive federal campaign finance reform is likely a long way off. Fostering change will require long-term investments and strategy, as well as creating a landscape where a wide and diverse range of advocates are part of the reform conversation. With this in mind, the Democracy Fund has made targeted grants intended to bring about incremental changes that can help diminish the influence of money in politics and enhance the voices of voters.

Below are brief descriptions of two grantees the Democracy Fund is supporting to help address the rising influence of money in our political system.

The Citizen Initiative Review: Giving Voters an Alternative to Paid Spin

One of the Democracy Fund’s strategies for addressing money in politics is to provide the public with an alternative to campaign ads, so that they can make better informed decisions when voting. By supporting grantees that equip the electorate with timely, accurate information, we hope to help reduce the effects of money in politics and the often deceptive information conveyed through campaign ads. This was precisely our approach when we decided to support Healthy Democracy’s Citizen Initiative Reviews (CIRs).

Since 2007, Healthy Democracy has been supporting CIRs that empower voters to make informed decisions about ballot initiatives. Ballot initiatives are especially important because they represent an increasingly popular way to legislate on controversial issues – from food safety to the minimum wage and from gun rights to taxes. Yet, in election after election, the hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the campaigns by special interests obscure the information citizens need on Election Day.

CIRs bring together a randomly selected, demographically balanced group of citizens who listen to experts and advocates to learn about and evaluate a ballot measure. The panel then drafts a statement with fact-based findings and the arguments for and against a proposal. These statements and recommendations are included in official voter education guides, giving voters an independent assessment of the measure. CIRs were first tested in Oregon in 2008 and signed into law there in 2011. Over the past three years, the Democracy Fund has supported Healthy Democracy’s efforts to bring CIRs to other states beyond Oregon. In 2014, Arizona and Colorado held pilot CIRs and efforts are underway to institutionalize the CIR in these and other states over the next two years.

External evaluations of the informative value of Citizens’ Initiative Reviews show consistently positive results. In Oregon:

  • 65% of voters who read the statements said they helped them decide how to vote.
  • CIR statements were found to help voters become more informed.
  • CIR deliberations were found to be fair and respectful, and produced statements free of gross factual errors or faulty logic.
Campaigns spent over $1 billion on ballot measures in 2012-2013 alone, and voters are bombarded with confusing and contradictory ads that aim to persuade rather than to inform. This not only makes it difficult for voters to determine the true impact of the proposed policy, but also decreases trust in our electoral processes.

Tyrone Reitman, Executive Director, Healthy Democracy

Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project: Clarifying the Role of Politics in Non-Profit Political Activity

A second example of the Democracy Fund’s approach to working in the campaign finance reform space can be seen from our support of Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project. Over the last few years – and thanks to some high profile cases – it has become increasingly clear that federal rules governing nonprofit political activities are vague and can be applied subjectively. This lack of clarity allows some groups to keep the sources of their funding anonymous even when substantial portions of their budgets are spent on political activity.

The Bright Lines Project (BLP), led by nine tax lawyers from across the political spectrum, has worked to develop a set of rules that simplify and clarify the kinds of political activities that are acceptable for nonprofit organizations. According to recent polling, more than 80% of voters think it’s important to have clear rules about the political activities nonprofits can undertake. Nearly two-thirds of voters also favor disclosure of political spending by nonprofits.

The IRS would be helped if there were brighter line rules, for people to institute more objective criteria than is used.

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, House Ways and Means Committee

The BLP’s proposed new rules incorporate broad-based, bipartisan input from a team of nonprofit tax attorney experts who have over a hundred years of collective experience in the field. The project’s proposed bright line rules aim to strike a middle ground, ensuring that speech closely connected to candidate elections is not subsidized by tax exemption. A shift like this would drive those who seek to abuse the tax code to the appropriate tax status with required transparency. As it stands, the vagueness of the regulation means some groups are overly cautious and other groups skirt the meaning of the law and regulations. The Bright Lines Project submitted its rules within a revised proposal to the IRS in November 2014 and in 2015, the IRS is expected to propose revised rules.

The pending IRS rules represent a live rule-making effort to clarify what is permissible by organizations engaging in political activity. If done correctly, this rulemaking will improve public confidence in our political and policy process, and provide one set of rules for all organizations who engage in politics.

Nonprofits and voters alike are in agreement that the IRS needs big improvements to define political activity for nonprofits. Our proposal protects nonprofits’ vital civic engagement work by ensuring they know what is and is not political activity.

Lisa Gilbert, Director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch and Manager of the Bright Lines Project

The work of Healthy Democracy and the Bright Lines Project is demonstrating that focused strategies can positively shape the seemingly intractable challenge of money in politics. The CIRs provide voters with viable alternatives to paid messaging on critical issues, thereby offsetting the ability of political donors to sway voters with deceptive messages. They are a highly scalable approach to public deliberation: only a small number of people need to actively participate for millions to benefit. Similarly, if adopted, the Bright Lines Project’s regulatory changes represent efforts to clarify the rules governing the tax status and allowed activities of those who fund campaign ads.

Both projects also reflect a commitment to bipartisanship. Through the Bright Lines Project, tax lawyers who might otherwise have only faced each other in court came to an agreement about a hot-button issue, and the CIR process engages a diverse group of citizens and carefully brings all sides of an issue together in critical discussion.

  • Healthy Democracy
  • Public Citizen Foundation, Bright Lines Project