The Wealth Primary

This week's decision by the Supreme Court, striking down the spending and contribution limits in Vermont's public financing law, is a good time to reflect on why so many Americans want clean elections through public financing.  Money distorts and corrodes politics in many different ways.  Today, with June 30th filing deadlines approaching in federal and many state elecitons, one in particular is on my mind: the wealth primary.

Early in the 20th century, "white primaries" excluded black voters from determining party nominees in many states.  They were considered legal under the theory that they were not "state action" - primaries were a private function carried out by party clubs, so equal protection did not apply.  In the mid-20th century, the Supreme Court ruled "white primaries" unconstitutional, by reinterpreting "state action" to apply to processes that were clearly such a critical part of the electoral process.  Being allowed to vote in the general election, but not to select your party's nominee, was an incomplete right to vote, and equal protection did apply.

Whites-only primaries are gone, but we still have another process that excludes whole classes of people from a critical part of the electoral process: Wealth primaries.  At first, poll taxes were used to explicitly prevent the poor from voting, and these too were ruled unconstitutional.  Over the years, another process has taken their place.  Before a single vote is cast, candidates must raise money from private donors.  Party leaders, and the press, look at the numbers, and candidates who haven't raised enough are written off.  Dismissed as "not credible".  Not covered on the front page, or much at all.  In some cases, even pressured by party leaders to drop out of races.

I'm particularly sensitive to the wealth primary this year because of recent campaigns where I live (near Boston).  At the beginning of this year, we had four candidates running for District Attorney, an open seat.  One of those candidates was a state senator, and multiple candidates began running for his seat.  One of those was a state representative, as was one of the candidates for DA, opening up two seats in the House for new candidates.  And then, one by one, candidates dropped out of these races because they couldn't raise enough money to keep up with their opponents.  There is now just one candidate for DA.  The state senator decided to run for re-election, and all other candidates for his senate seat dropped out.  Both state reps are also running for re-election.  Now, I support most of these candidates.  Nevertheless, at least four elections were all decided by contributors before any votes were cast!

Unlike white primaries, wealth primaries don't keep anyone from voting to select the party nominee.  What they do is reserve the process of selecting who will run primarily for the wealthy.  A single donor who can afford to give $500 is worth as much as ten donors who can only afford $50.  A single donor who can afford to give $2,000 is worth as much as a hundred donors who can only afford $20.  In the Wealth Primary, it's one dollar, one vote.

This is also on my mind because I work for the man who developed legal theory behind the "wealth primary" argument, John Bonifaz.  He founded the National Voting Rights Institute partly to advance this in the courts, and it was largely on the basis of this work that the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a fellowship, commonly knows as a "genius award".  He was a co-counsel in the defense of Vermont's public financing law.

Ironically, Bonifaz himself is in a wealth primary right now.  As a new challenger running against a 12 year incumbent for secretary of state, it's sometimes a struggle to get the press to pay attention.  In a healthy democracy, Bonifaz's expertise in election law and long history of effective voting rights advocacy both nationally and athome would be enough to mark him a credible candidate worth serious attention.  But given his incumbent's 7-figure campaign warchest, Bonifaz's "credibility" will be determined, in the eyes of the press, by how much money people contribute before tomorrow's filing deadline.

Let's work hard to eliminate wealth primaries by instituting public financing of elections.  But in the meantime, if you can afford to participate, your favorite candidates need your support today.


Tags: campaign finance, election reform, John Bonifaz (all tags)



Re: The Wealth Primary

You must talk to Judge William O'Neill. For your article echos what he has been saying all along.
O'Neill is the "No Money from Nobody" Democratic candidate for the Ohio Supreme Court.  He won the Democratic primary without accepting one dime in cash donations or the endorsement of the Democractic Party, simply because he believes, "Money and judges don't mix."

His website is at:

After reading this item I e-mailed the judge and requested that he contact you.  

I truly hope you two can get together, as he is actually walking the walk when it comes to ethics in government and in life.

by Betty Jane 2006-06-29 08:57AM | 0 recs
Re: The Wealth Primary

This is a great post and dead on with an issue that is killing our democracy.  The difficulty lies in how to get like minded individuals into power so they can change the laws.  Because of how the system is set up, its difficult to get such individuals elected.  Personally, I think progressives should push for commitments from our candidates to make clean elections their first task once elected.  For example, after the messy and expensive primary between Angelides and Westly, it would be nice to hear Angelides stand up and say that as governor he will use his position to clean up California campaigns and the state will never have to be beholden to the slime politics of moneyed interests.  Given Angelides' past, I doubt he would be the guy for this, but, in any event, efforts need to be made  to (1) get Democrats on board and (2) sway public opinion.

by SamInDC 2006-06-29 09:05AM | 0 recs
Re: The Wealth Primary

This is good news because half measures, like the Vermont law, inervitably so sate the appetite for reform that it becomes a lost cause.

As for election reform in california:   Bwaaa haa haa haa.

by NorCalJim 2006-06-29 01:08PM | 0 recs
Re: The Wealth Primary

And we all recall how the establishment's connections to wealth determined the outcome of the primary in Illinois-06.

by illinois062006 2006-06-29 09:58PM | 0 recs


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