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2016 election may drive voters to demand change in campaign financing

U.S. Senator and Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at Penn State University in State College, Pa., Tuesday, April 19, 2016. (Sean Simmers/PennLive.com via AP)

Outside actor George Clooney's home on Saturday, supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders threw dollar bills at Hillary Clinton's motorcade as it drove by.

The former secretary of state attended a fundraiser at Clooney's home that night, but most of the large donations received there will go to support other Democrats down the ballot.

Sanders has been highly critical of Clinton for her fundraising practices and he has frequently alleged that candidates who take money from Wall Street bankers and lobbyists cannot be trusted to regulate them. His push for campaign finance reform is one position that has resonated strongly with voters and drawn massive crowds at his rallies.

While many Americans share Sanders' hatred for the corrupting effects of money in politics, his passion has so far not translated into enough votes to overtake Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

After Sanders criticized Clinton over the fundraiser, Clooney agreed that the amount of money attendees donated was "obscene," but he argued the money is needed for Democrats to regain control of Congress.

Clinton has also railed against the influence of super PACs and wealthy donors, often noting that the Citizens United Supreme Court case that opened the door to this unlimited spending was fought over a documentary attacking her. She does have super PACs supporting her, but she maintains she has never changed her position on an issue at the behest of a donor.

According to advocates of campaign finance reform, the effect of big money on government policy can be more subtle.

"There's this image of the back alley deal with bags of money for a vote, but that's not what we're talking about," said Ian Vandewalker, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.

The concern is that the wealthiest people are the ones whose voices are consistently being heard by lawmakers, particularly on the congressional level where a single large donation can have a bigger impact than on a presidential campaign.

The rhetoric coming from Democratic presidential candidates has brought the issue of campaign financing to the forefront at a vital time.

"We're going to see the most expensive election ever, the least regulated election ever, and the darkest election of all time," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the advocacy group Public Citizen, referring to the rapidly growing role of "dark money" raised by organizations that do not need to disclose their donors.

He described the Federal Election Commission that is supposed to be monitoring the 2016 campaign as "essentially broken" because of a partisan 3-3 split.

It may then fall to the public to spur change on this issue, and Holman believes the stakes are very high.

"Literally, the integrity of our democratic system is riding on this," he said.

"It determines who's going to be our governors, our legislators, and our president. This is what democracy is all about."

Vandewalker also sees the outsized influence of money as potentially subverting democracy.

"Democracy is premised on the idea that we all get together and decide who our representatives are going to be and then those people represent all of us," he said. "The concern is that they don't represent everybody, they represent the big donors who are paying the bills for their campaigns."

Miriam Marks, data director for MapLight, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics, said there is a "systemic problem" of wealthy citizens and corporations exerting disproportionate influence on lawmakers.

"The nature of the corruption is so systemic that it doesn't always look like the smoking gun that some people expect," she said.

If the wealthy do have that kind of power, according to Marks, it raises questions of whether the system is truly a democracy or something closer to oligarchy.

Public opinion has consistently favored some restrictions on campaign contributions for at least the last 15 years, but it has not emerged in the past as a top priority for voters.

A 2001 Gallup poll showed 76 percent of voters supported laws that would limit individual contributions to political parties. However, only about 40 percent said the issue was extremely or very important.

Post-Citizens United, disdain for the role of money in presidential campaign has continued. According to a 2012 Washington Post/ABC News poll, 69 percent of voters believed super PACs should not be legal.

A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found the influence of special interest money to be the biggest problem Americans have with elected officials. Vast majorities in both parties favored limiting the amounts individuals and organizations can spend on presidential campaigns.

The public supports drastic measures to correct the system, according to a June 2015 New York Times/CBS News poll. Nearly 40 percent of respondents said campaign financing needs fundamental changes, while 46 percent called for the system to be completely rebuilt.

There was wide bipartisan support for restricting spending by outside groups and requiring those groups to disclose their donors. More than half of respondents rejected the notion that political contributions should be considered protected free speech.

According to Holman, that bipartisan agreement in favor of reforming the system is typical among the general public. The only place where he sees the issue taking on a partisan tone is in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail.

"People have always understood it to be a problem, but most people sort of see their bread and butter issues as a bigger concern," Vandewalker said.

What is now happening is that voters are realizing how campaign finance reform relates to those bread and butter issues. The influence of money is one factor standing in the way of Congress acting on issues like immigration, climate change, and consumer protection.

If lawmakers do want to take action, Holman listed several steps Congress could take to reduce the role of money in the political process. He urged the passage of the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act to create more transparency for contributions.

There are several proposals that would reduce the role of special interest money by creating a strong public financing system for campaigns. Also, Holman feels more needs to be done to prohibit coordination between campaigns and outside groups backing them.

Reversing the Citizens United decision would help "get all this unlimited, unregulated money out of our system," he said, but that will require either a new Supreme Court ruling or a constitutional amendment. He is hopeful that the court will accept a case that revisits the issue in an upcoming term because the original ruling has had unintended consequences.

Despite widespread concerns about dark money and super PACs corrupting the political system, big spending and advertising seems to have had surprisingly little effect on this year's presidential race so far. The candidates generating the most buzz are the ones least reliant on shadowy outside support.

On the Democratic side is Sanders, an insurgent candidate who has proven unexpectedly adept at attracting millions of small donations and has rejected the assistance of super PACs. On the Republican side is Donald Trump, a billionaire funding his candidacy in part with his own money and utilizing free media coverage far more than paid advertising.

Vandewalker cautioned against reading too much into the role of outside groups in any one particular candidacy. While much of the media focus has been on the PACs spending millions on failed candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton also have extremely well-funded super PACs backing them and are doing very well.

Some wealthy donors and organizations, including the Koch brothers, are also holding off on spending big until the general election, so money could still become a larger factor in the fall.

According to Holman, the apparent reduced impact of PACs on the presidential level has not been reflected in state, local, and congressional races.

"There, whoever spends the most almost always wins," he said.

Billions of dollars will be spent between now and Election Day in races across the country, much of it on the kind of negative advertising that voters hate. Regardless of who wins the election, advocates for reform believe the debate has reached a tipping point.

"People are going to be disgusted and they're to demand change," Vandewalker said.

"I'm expecting the 2016 elections to ring loudly here on Capitol Hill and put Congress on notice that the public is sick and tired of all this unlimited dark money," Holman said.

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