Special to the USA TODAY Network: link here.
March 9, 2021
Our democracy is badly broken. Right now, Republicans in Arizona, Georgia and elsewhere are working hard to break it even further. But last week, my Democratic colleagues and I rose to repair and reconstruct it.
The For the People Act (H.R. 1), which passed the House of Representatives last week, will be the most significant improvement to our democracy since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. My colleagues in the Senate should act swiftly to send this bill to President Biden’s desk. It is required to save our democracy from the people who incited the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th.
The For the People Act is a comprehensive bill that establishes automatic voter registration, combats voter suppression, protects our elections from foreign interference, and ends partisan gerrymandering — a process by which representatives choose their voters rather than voters choose their representatives.
But I want to focus on how H.R. 1 changes how campaigns are funded, amplifying the voices of everyday Americans.
Our current campaign finance system gives the wealthy a megaphone and silences the rest of us. In 2016, just 400 mega-donors contributed a total of $1.5 billion – more than every small donor combined. Those donors are predominantly wealthy white men, and they predominantly contribute to white candidates.
Congress isn’t just funded by wealthy people — it’s full of them. More than 50% of lawmakers in the 116th Congress have a net worth of more than $1 million, compared to just three percent of the population. This is not by accident: our campaign finance system is rigged to favor wealthy candidates. They can fund their own campaigns. They’re more likely to have nest eggs they can rely on while campaigning. And when they need extra funds, they can lean on networks of affluent family and friends.
I experienced our broken campaign finance system firsthand in my own run for Congress. When I was considering running for office, the first question insiders asked me was not what I would fight for, not whether my community was behind me, but how much money I could raise.
My leading primary competitor never had to answer that question. As the son of a pharmaceutical billionaire, he didn’t have to raise any money at all. Instead, he spent $5.4 million of his inherited wealth to blanket the airwaves with TV commercials three months out from the primary election. In the general election, I faced yet another self-funding candidate who outspent me by pumping $1.5 million into his campaign.
Against these long odds, I was elected to Congress. As an openly gay, Black, working-class candidate whose community sent him to Congress, I’m an exception. But I shouldn’t be. With the small-donor matching system in H.R. 1, candidates like me could be the norm.
Small-donor matching is simple: for every dollar a regular person donates up to $200, public financing matches that dollar with $6. A $50 donation becomes a $350 donation. As a result, small donors would matter — fixing the toxic power dynamics that threaten our democracy.
Small-donor matching has already transformed New York politics for the better. The donors in New York City elections, which have a matching program, are by far more racially and socioeconomically diverse than the donors in New York State elections, which do not. H.R. 1 would take that transformation nationwide.
The same goes for candidates. Candidates of color disproportionately rely on small donations. But because big money drowns out small donors’ voices, we typically raise less money than our opponents. Thus, we are often prevented from even making the ballot. By multiplying the power of the people candidates of color rely on most, small-donor matching empowers more people to take their seats at the table.
When we can elect people who really represent us, we get a government that really serves all of us — not just the wealthy and well-connected. If Congress had more ordinary Americans, it surely would not be so indifferent to the needs of working families. My Democratic colleagues and I in this Congress are already proving that by passing real COVID-19 relief in the American Rescue Plan. And we’re just getting started.
For at least a decade, Democrats have promised that when we had the chance, we would fix our broken campaign finance system. It’s taken over 10 years, but we’re here. It’s time. If the Senate fails to follow through — if we compromise with corruption — we risk confirming many Americans’ beliefs that billionaires and corporations have captured both parties, that our elections offer no real choices, and that our democracy is a swamp in need of a strongman to drain it.
So let’s fight for H.R. 1 and its small-dollar matching program like our democracy depends on it — because it does.
Rep. Mondaire Jones represents New York’s 17th Congressional District, which includes most of Westchester County and all of Rockland County.