Becca Balint: Coming up against the conundrum of campaign finance

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As I sent my final campaign finance report to the Secretary of State's Office recently, I remembered a conversation I'd had with a neighbor during the campaign season. While he generally supported my decision not to accept any corporate donations or PAC money for my re-election campaign, he confessed to some underlying uneasiness.

He said, "I want people who share my values and policy ideas to win. If my chosen candidates limit the sources of their donations, and their opponents don't, they'll always be at a fundraising disadvantage." I see his point. The conflicts among my constituent's opinions reflect my own dilemma.

This was the second election cycle in which I didn't accept cash donations from any entities other than individuals. During my first campaign for state senate, I accepted modest donations from one or two local businesses. But many voters wanted me to reject donations from any business; they wanted one person, one vote, and transparent donations from individuals.

Many were also uncomfortable with my decision to accept PAC money — even if the donations were from organizations they supported. They said they didn't want to feel like any organization had my ear more (due to a donation) than an individual citizen. They are not alone in feeling this way.

I returned several thousand dollars in donations from PACs and corporations this election cycle, and many constituents said they supported this decision. But several constituents also said they disagreed with candidates accepting any donations. Yet it's hard to pay for campaign materials if you don't raise money. And our candidate pool shouldn't be limited to only the wealthy who can donate their own money to a campaign.

There's also the glaring gender gap when it comes to campaign fundraising. A 2018 NPR analysis of campaign finance records showed that Democratic women congressional candidates faced a fundraising gap compared to Democratic men—about $500,000. We need more research done on the donation gap, but it's clear that part of the issue is that men generally make more money than women and have more disposable income. The donors in their networks also tend to have more money, and this translates into bigger donations. Simply put: women candidates do not begin their races at the same financial starting line. Clearly, we must be willing to try different solutions to make elections more accessible.

About 90 percent of Americans say they want campaign finance changes. However, less than 10 percent of Americans ever give any amount to any political campaign. And less than half of 1 percent of the American adult population has ever donated more than $200 to a candidate or PAC. We say we want the game played differently. But until we start playing by different rules, the game will stay the same. The vast majority of Americans either don't feel moved to invest their own money to help bring about that change, or they don't have enough disposable income to enable them to make a political donation.

New York City has an innovative small-dollar public matching funds program that helps candidates rely on city residents — not special interests — for campaigns funds. The voluntary public financing program matches small-dollar contributions from individuals. A $10 contribution from a NYC resident to a participating candidate in the 2021 election could be worth as much as $90. It's an intriguing idea.

By the end of the conversation with my neighbor, we both remained conflicted about the right path forward. As opinionated as I am, I don't yet have total clarity on this complicated issue. But our current campaign finance rules make so many Vermonters really uncomfortable. This leads to doubt in democracy itself. That alone is a strong argument for changing the system.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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