In 2012, private individuals contributed more than one billion dollars to political campaigns. That would finance a Vassar education for over 67,000 Vassar students. When you think about the impact that this amount of money can have, it makes complete sense that it can have a huge influence on public policy when given to candidates. When you consider that all of this money is coming from the hands of a mere handful of very wealthy and influential individuals, it is clear that it can dangerously affect and inhibit the democratic process in the United States.
In its ideal form, democracy is a system of government that allows all citizens to have an equal voice in who represents them and what those representatives do. But when some citizens can contribute exorbitantly more than others, their voices often end up mattering much more than those of individual voters. Politicians become beholden to the interests of the few, leaving behind the many. For this reason, it is no wonder that disillusionment with our government is growing. When people do not believe their vote will matter, they will hardly want to show up to the polls on Election Day.
The severity of our campaign finance system is inherently linked to economic inequality. The gap between the rich and the poor is greater today than ever before. And this gap only stands to widen, as the top one percent of the population has disproportionate influence over our elected officials. This is not the democracy in which we should be living. Those with money do not matter more than those without, and money certainly should not equal speech.
The really intense effects of money in politics reach into all aspects of life. One particularly upsetting example is that certain couches were found to be made with flame retardant material that included carcinogenic materials. In this case, the corporations responsible for their production were able to use their money and consequent political influence to bypass federal health and safety regulations surrounding their manufacturing. One study discovered as much as 84 percent of couches in California contain such carcinogens (CBS News, “Harmful flame retardants found in 84 percent of Calif. couches“ 11.28.13).
Those with an interest in the conservation of the environment should realize that money and politics also play a huge role in environmental policy. Companies get away with irresponsible and destructive actions because politicians are dependent on their money to get elected. For example, if a corporation that is involved in fracking donates a large sum to a political candidate, once elected, that politician will be compelled to support pro-fracking legislation they may have otherwise been against.
It is necessary to fight for a system that allows all citizens to have an equal voice, a system that allows for the interests of all people to be heard, a system that is fair and that makes any sort of sense in the context of formal equality.
We represent the Vassar chapter of Democracy Matters, which was founded as a national organization for college students to join in this fight. Our goal is simple—to get money out of politics and people back in. Our chapter has found ways to get involved and make a difference, starting right here in our home state.
New York is on the verge of taking steps to restore democratic principles to the political system. Governor Cuomo, with the endorsement of the Moreland Commission (thanks to everyone who signed our petition last semester!) has put a public financing system into the proposed state budget. In addition to closing loopholes of election disclosure laws, the system would put into place an option for those who want to run for office without the money of big corporations. It is a matching system in which the government would match funds raised at a 6-to-1 ration. This would allow candidates to rely on the money of average citizens to run their campaigns, as opposed to those in the top one percent. Public financing empowers citizens to have a voice in their democracy.
Public financing systems already exist in the United States, and they have proven to be successful. Arizona, Maine and Connecticut have already implemented such systems, and the positive public reaction they garnered proves that public financing is a nonpartisan way to combat campaign finance corruption.
Governor Cuomo’s inclusion of public financing in his budget proposal was an important step in the right direction, but the fight is far from over. It is imperative that we as citizens pressure him and our state legislators to continue to support fair elections. Calling the offices of Governor Cuomo or State Senator Gipson (who represents Vassar’s district) is a great way to let them know you expect them to support this system that has your best interests as a citizen in mind. Democracy Matters will be tabling in the Retreat before breaking with petitions of support for fair elections to send to our politicians.
Keep an eye out for the Vassar Chapter of Democracy Matters’ Facebook page for updates on the fight. Most importantly, make your voice heard. Our democracy depends on it. Governor Cuomo’s office can be reached at 518-474-8390. Representative Gipson can be reached at 518-455-2303. Call, and say something along the lines of “Hi, my name is…I’m a student at Vassar College and I’m calling to ask the Governor/Representative to continue to support fair elections.” Or just tweet at Governor Cuomo (NYGovCuomo) or Representative Gipson (@TerryGipsonNY) using the hashtag “fairelex.” This issue is real, and serious, legitimate, amazing change is possible. We’d love for you to be a part of it.
—The Vassar chapter of Democracy Matters holds meetings every Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Josselyn Parlor.