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Brennan Center remembers Citizens United 10 years later; urges reform

Ten years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door in Citizens United for mega-wealthy donors to infuse big money into political races across the nation.

Or, as the Brennan Center for Justice put it, the high court “slashed commonsense limits on campaign cash and set America’s campaign finance system on a path to overwhelming dominance by the ultra-wealthy few.” The non-profit at New York University released its analysis this week on House Resolution 1, the reform law that would counter Citizens United.

H.R. 1 is a public financing program that would “amplify the voices of small donors, so the flood of megadonor money can be balanced by supercharged funding from regular people.” The Brennan Center’s analysis shows it would fundamentally transform campaign financing for the better.

Since Citizens United, the share of election funding from megadonors has mushroomed: in 2016, a few donors of more than $100,000 accounted for more than half of all election spending, dwarfing the money given by millions of small donors. Even with the boom in grassroots engagement and small donations in 2018, small donors were overshadowed by megadonors. Without reform, the gap is only going to widen.

The imbalance in campaign finance has made many Americans frustrated and cynical. But while it may be easy to see the current state of money in politics as inevitable, the truth is powerful fixes are available to restore balance and empower everyday people.

Public campaign financing has succeeded in changing the way politicians raise money in states and cities across the country, from Maine to Arizona and New York City to Los Angeles. It reduces candidates’ need to chase big donors and makes typical Americans the most important source of funds. The boost that public financing gives small donors is needed now more than ever because non-millionaires simply can’t keep up with the gains at the top.

North Carolina defunded its public financing program years ago, and it subsequently led to millions in outside spending for the election of now state Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan which shifted the court’s ideological balance to the left.

Previous Brennan Center research has shown that million-dollar campaigns for state supreme court seats were fast becoming the national norm. Dark, untraceable funds are flooding judicial races, and national political groups and business interests regularly pour money into these campaigns.

And this year isn’t expected to be any different as Republicans have a chance to win more seats and even out the ideology across the bench. There are three seats on the state Supreme Court up for election, and each race will be competitive.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who was appointed to the helm earlier this year, will run against Associate Justice Paul Newby, currently the most senior on the court and the only Republican, to keep her place on the bench. North Carolina Court of Appeals Judges Lucy Inman, a registered Democrat, and Phil Berger Jr., a registered Republican, will vie for the seat Newby leaves behind.

And finally, on the high court, former lawmaker Tamara Barringer, a Republican, will challenge current Associate Justice Mark Davis, a Democrat, in his effort to stay seated after being appointed earlier this year by Gov. Roy Cooper.

H.R. 1, the For the People Act, was passed by the House congressional delegation in March 2019, and it is a comprehensive democracy reform package that would help quell big and dark money in political campaign races.

The bill includes a system of public financing for House elections that would multiply small contributions by matching donations of $200 or less at a rate of six to one, according to the Brennan Center analysis. A $200 donation would get a $1,200 match, making it worth $1,400 to the campaign. Candidates can choose to opt in if they show they have substantial public support. Those participating may not accept more than $1,000 in private funds from each donor — significantly lower than the contribution limit of $5,600 for the 2020 election cycle. And the amount of public funds each candidate can earn in an election cycle is capped.

Read the Brennan Center’s full analysis here about how H.R. 1 would turn the current funding landscape on its head.

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