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Our nations history is arguably a long, slow, arduous, and
unfinished drive toward giving every American a truly
equal voice in making the collective decisions that govern
our lives. The exaggerated role of big money in politics,
however, is both a symptom and source of inequality in
America and a key barrier to achieving this goal.
As election spending has grown by leaps and bounds in
recent years, candidates and campaigns are increasing
their reliance on large contributions from wealthy donors
who represent a tiny fraction of the population a
disturbing trend that is expected to only grow worse in
the near future.
This reliance on big donors exacerbates racial, economic,
and gender inequality. For example, the wealth gap
between white communities and communities of color
has grown to its largest size in 25 years, meaning that those
who can make large donations to election campaigns are
increasingly unrepresentative of the general population.1
These disproportionately white and male donors not
only look different than most Americans they also
have different policy preferences.2 The candidates who
succeed in this environment are often more representative
of this homogenous donor pool (by demographics and
policy outlook) than of their more diverse constituents.


As a result, a narrow segment of the population drives

the agendas in Washington and state capitals across the
country, and elected officials are less likely to be responsive
to policy preferences held by those who are not white,
wealthy, and male. As demonstrated in Demos Stacked
Deck series, this biases policy outcomes, which in turn
ultimately reinforce existing inequalities.3
Recognizing the connection between our distorted
political system and broader inequality provides tools
and motivation for remedying both. We can make more
progress on racial, gender, and economic equity by tearing
down barriers raised by big money elections. And, we can
reinvigorate efforts to counter the current outsized role
of money in politics by emphasizing that it is a central
obstacle in our countrys path toward justice and equality.

How Money in Politics Reinforces Inequality

Political spending is growing substantially. In the

2012 cycle, federal election spending exceeded $6.2
billion up by more than 50 percent since 2004.4
More than $1 billion of that spending came from
outside groups empowered by recent Supreme Court
decisions. Some sources estimate that candidates,
parties, and interest groups will spend as much as

Rakesh Kochhar & Richard Fry, Wealth Inequality Has Widened Along Racial, Ethnic Lines Since End of Great Recession, Pew Research Ctr. (Dec. 12, 2014), http://www. For more information on the impact of public policy on the racial wealth gap, see Amy Traub,
Catherine Ruetschlin & Tamara Draut, Demos, The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters (2015), available at
See David Callahan & J. Mijin Cha, Demos, Stacked Deck: How the Dominance of Politics by the Affluent & Business Undermines Economic Mobility in America 5
(2013), available at
See id.; Adam Lioz, Demos, Stacked Deck: How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy 14 (2015), available
Cost of Election, Ctr. for Responsive Politics,

are white; and these are the people most capable of

making large contributions.13 As for actual donors,
less than 10 percent of contributions of $200 or
more in the 2012 presidential campaign came from
communities of color, while more than 90 percent
came from white neighborhoods.14 The New York
Times found that the 158 families fueling the 2016
campaign are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and
male, in a nation that is being remade by the young,
by women, and by black and brown voters.15 Small
donors, on the other hand, are at times more diverse
than the population at large. In New York Citys
2009 elections, for example, both African American
and Latino neighborhoods were over-represented
among donors giving $10 or less.16

$10 billion on federal races in 2016.5 Candidates

for U.S. Senate must now raise $3,300 every single
day for six years to keep up with the average winner,
preventing many people from running at all.6

More money is coming from a small, wealthy

segment of society. Even as small contributions
have fueled some candidates, overall funding of the
2016 election remains highly concentrated with
close to half of super PAC money coming from
just 50 donors.7 An elite set of wealthy donors has
long been responsible for the vast majority of funds
in our system but in recent years the problem
has only gotten worse.8 In 2010, the first election
in which super PACs emerged, donors of $200
or less contributed three times as much as the top
100 donors combined.9 By 2014, the first midterm
election since 1990 in which the total number of
contributors declined, the top 100 super PAC donors
gave just as much as all small donors combined.10
Just 195 families accounted for 60 percent of the
more than $1 billion contributed to super PACs
between the Citizens United decision and the 2014
election.11 And campaign contributions are even
more concentrated than wealth: According to a 2013
study, while the richest 0.01 percent of households
takes in 5 percent of all income, the top 0.01 percent
of households in terms of political giving account for
40 percent of political contributions.12

Large donors have different priorities than do

people of color and the public at large. Several
recent studies illustrate how stark the divide is
between the policy preferences of wealthy Americans
compared to people of color and the broader
public. In a 2013 poll from The Washington Post, an
overwhelming majority of people of color and persons
making less than $50,000 a year said that creating
jobs was more important than holding down the
federal budget deficit. A majority of white Americans
and people making $100,000 or more per year said
the opposite.17 Another survey found that while
78 percent of the public believes the government
should make college affordable for everyone who
wants to go, only 28 percent of the very wealthy
agree.18 This divide remains once people are asked
to consider specific policy proposals. The general
public is twice as concerned as wealthy Americans
are about guaranteeing a livable minimum wage and

Large political donors are disproportionately

white and male, whereas small donors are not
necessarily skewed by gender and race. While
only 63 percent of the U.S. population is white, 90
percent of the wealthiest 1 percent of individuals


See, e.g., Eric Lichtblau, F.E.C. Cant Curb 2016 Election Abuse, Commissioner Says, N.Y. Times (May 2, 2015),
Adam Lioz & Karen Shanton, Demos, The Money Chase 4 (2015), available at
Matea Gold & Anu Narayanswamy, The New Gilded Age: Close to half of all super-PAC money comes from 50 donors, Wash. Post, April 15, 2016, https://www.
For example, as far back as the 2002 election cycle, more than half of the funds congressional candidates raised from individuals came in contributions of at least $1,000
from just 0.09% of the population. Adam Lioz, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, The Role of Money in the 2002 Congressional Elections (2003), available at http://www.
Lawrence Norden, Brent Ferguson & Douglas Keith, Brennan Ctr. For Justice, Five to Four 4 (2016), available at
Michael Hiltzik, Five Years After Citizens United Ruling, Big Money Reigns, L.A. Times, Jan. 24, 2015,
Adam Bonica, et. al., Why Hasnt Democracy Slowed Rising Inequality?, 27 J. Econ. Persp.103, 111, (2013).
Lioz, supra note 3, at 14.
Jack Gillum & Luis Alonso Lugo, 2012 Election: Minorities Donating Little To Presidential Races, Huffington Post, Jan. 3, 2013,
Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen & Karen Yourish, The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election, N.Y. Times, Oct. 10, 2015,
Lioz, supra note 3, at 22-23.
See id. at 15-16.
Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels & Jason Seawright, Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans, 11 Persp. on Pol 51, 59 (2013).


2 | Brennan Center for Justice and demos

unemployment benefits, and more than three times

as supportive of maintaining or growing the Earned
Income Tax Credit.19

The need to raise big money is an obstacle to

candidates of color and women. Ninety percent
of our elected officials are white and 80 percent
of the members of the current Congress are male,
even though people of color make up approximately
37 percent, and women 51 percent, of the United
States population.20
A key reason for this underrepresentation is that
people of color and all women run for office at
disproportionately low rates, in part because of
disparate access to resources.21 People of color have
less access to both personal wealth and wealth within
their communities,22 and this lack of community
resources is a predictor of whether black candidates
run for office.23 Women are less likely to run for
office because of the perception that they will have a
more difficult time raising the necessary money.24 For
women generally, that perception may be wrong,25
but for candidates of color, fundraising is indeed
more difficult. A study of more than 2,000 state
legislative races in 2006 showed that candidates of
color raised on average 47 percent less than white
candidates.26 Whether potential candidates are
determining for themselves that they cannot access
the immense resources necessary to run, or party
leaders are not recruiting women or candidates of
color to run because they perceive the lack of resources
as an obstacle, economic inequality and structural
racism distorts representation.27

income were 15 times as likely to have their preferences

enacted than the rest of the population.28 According
to Gilens, when the preferences of the wealthiest 10
percent of the population conflict with what the rest
of us want, the 10 percent trumps the 90 percent.29
Another study found that the preferences of people
in the bottom third of the income distribution have
no apparent impact on the behavior of their elected
officials.30 This is especially troubling given that
more than half of African American households and
40 percent of Latino American households are in that
bottom third, but only 30 percent of white American
households are.31
Making matters worse, Gilens found that the starkest
difference in responsiveness to the affluent and the
middle class occurs on economic policy which can
be critical to making progress on racial and gender
equity as well as economic fairness.32
This all adds up to one key point: On issues ranging
from mass incarceration to the role government plays in
structuring a fair economy, wealthy, white, mostly male
donors are driving government action while the vast
majority of people struggle to make our voices heard in
the corridors of power.33

Putting People, Not Money, at the Center

of Our Democracy
Policies to address the outsized role of big money in
our elections should be centered on the following key
values: better policy outcomes; more racial, gender,
income, and wealth diversity among candidates and
elected officials; greater percentage of small contributions
financing elections; high and sustained rates of candidate
participation in people-powered funding programs; and
more competitive seats and races.

Legislatures are more likely to enact the policy

preferences of wealthy white Americans. A
landmark study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin
Page found that the top 10 percent of individuals by


Callahan & Cha, supra note 2, at 5.

Lioz, supra note 3, at 25; Women in U.S. Congress 2015, Center for American Women and Politics,
Jennifer L. Lawless & Richard L. Fox, Brookings, Why Are Women Still Not Running for Office 1, 15 (2008), available at
files/papers/2008/5/women-lawless-fox/05_women_lawless_fox.pdf; Paru Shah, It Takes a Black Candidate: A Supply-Side Theory of Minority Representation, 67 Pol. Res.
Q. 266, 269, 275 (2013).
See Lioz, supra note 3, at 14.
Shah, supra note 21, at 272.
Lawless & Fox, supra note 21, at 14.
Laura Merrifield Albright, Not Simply Black and White: The Relationship between Race/Ethnicity and Campaign Finance in State Legislative Elections (Aug. 4, 2014)
(unpublished manuscript), available at
See Lioz, supra note 3, at 27.
Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, 12 Persp. on Pol. 564, 575 (2014).
Martin Gilens, Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America 84 (2012).
Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age 285 (2008).
Lioz, supra note 3, at 14.
Martin Gilens, Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America 101 (2012).
For specific case studies on these and other issues, see Lioz, supra note 3.


a civil rights perspective on money in politics | 3

If programs are designed to ensure participants can

run competitive campaigns, they can reduce reliance
on unrepresentative large donors and encourage
candidates to interact with the diverse constituents
they seek to represent.

Examples of effective reforms include:

Publicly funded elections systems can increase

the racial, economic, and gender diversity of both
donors and candidates, and make elected officials
more responsive to their constituents. New York
Citys small donor matching program, for example,
provides participating candidates with six dollars
for every dollar contributed by city residents up
to $175 and requires these candidates to adhere to
spending limits. A 2012 Brennan Center analysis
found that contributors to New York City candidates
participating in the funding program are more
racially and economically diverse than donors to
state legislative candidates not eligible for public
financing.34 And the approximately 90 percent of New
York City candidates participating in the program35
are more likely to turn to their own constituents for
financial support.36
In other programs, such as Arizonas block grant
system, candidates need only collect a set number of
small contributions in order to receive a grant that
covers all of their campaign costs. Such programs
may also increase racial and gender diversity
among candidates, according to an analysis of
block grant programs in Arizona, Connecticut,
and Maine by Common Cause and the Center for
Governmental Studies.37 Candidates report that
these programs made it possible for them to run
for and win office by removing imposing financial
barriers.38 Additional public funding programs, such
as tax credits or vouchers, can expand the donor
pool to include those who cannot afford to make
political contributions. Of note, in 2015 Seattle
voters passed an innovative program providing
eligible voters four $25 Democracy Vouchers.



Strengthening coordination and disclosure rules

will make it more difficult for candidates to rely solely
on unrepresentative wealthy donors for support, and
will allow the public to see when they do. Currently,
candidates can rely on loosely-regulated outside
groups to run ads and fund other critical campaign
needs. These groups are nominally independent, but
candidates know where the money is coming from
and find ways to guide their activities. Stricter rules
ones that stop candidates from raising money
for these groups, and create real separation in their
activities will make it harder to rely on outside
groups fueled by homogeneous megadonors. When
candidates do turn to these big donors for support,
better disclosure requirements will call attention to
that reliance and illustrate the lack of diversity among
the people funding campaigns.

Restoring equality as a legitimate goal of limits

on big money will allow for a broader array of
solutions to tackle our current problems. For 40
years, the Supreme Court has maintained that
limits on campaign contributions and spending
cannot be justified by a desire to achieve equality of
opportunity to participate in the political process.39
Over the last decade the Court has weakened citizen
funding programs, opened the door to greater outside
spending, and made it possible for individuals to
give more than $5 million per election to the party
of their choosing.40 Shifting the Supreme Courts
approach so it recognizes that inequality undermines
our democracy will allow for reforms that confront
political inequality head on.

Elisabeth Genn et al., Brennan Ctr. for Justice, Donor Diversity through Public Matching Funds 4-5 (2012), available at
New York City Campaign Finance Board, 2013 Post-Election Report 3 (2014), available at
See Genn, supra note 34, at 7.
Arn Pearson & Nick Nyhart, Evaluation of the latest GAO Report on Impact of Clean Elections in Arizona and Maine, Common Cause (Jun. 4, 2010), http://www.; Ctr. for
Governmental Studies, Public Financing in California: A Model Law for the 21st Century (2011), available at
See generally DeNora Getachew & Ava Mehta, Brennan Ctr. for Justice, Breaking Down Barriers: The Faces of Small Donor Public Financing (2016), available at
Adam Lioz, Demos, Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Rescuing Our Democracy and Our Economy by Transforming the Supreme Courts Flawed Approach to Money in Politics 2
(2015), available at
Norden, supra note 9, at 1, 9, 12.

2016. This paper is covered by the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivs-NonCommercial license (see It may be reproduced in its
entirety as long as the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and Demos are credited, a link to the their web pages is provided, and no charge is imposed. The
paper may not be reproduced in part or in altered form, or if a fee is charged, without their permission. Please let the Center and Demos know if you reprint.
4 | Brennan Center for Justice and demos