Follow @csteditorialsIf you are not a member of a big and powerful union or a very wealthy person, nobody’s looking out for you in the November elections for the state Legislature.
As made clear in a report in Sunday’s Chicago Sun-Times, state legislative races — especially the tight ones that could determine the direction of the state House and Senate — are being funded by tens of millions of dollars from big labor unions on the Democratic side and a handful of billionaires on the Republican side.
Follow @csteditorialsThe money the unions and the super-rich are pouring into these races overwhelms all other donations. They’re looking for legislators who do their bidding, and only secondarily, if ever, yours. It is a travesty in a democracy, and it cries out for real and meaningful campaign finance reform.
For example, more than $2 million has been pumped into the race between Republican state Rep. Michael McAulliffe of Chicago and Democratic challenger Merry Marwig. Who would even notice a $25 contribution from an average voter?
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission makes it difficult to keep wealthy parties from injecting as much money as they please into political campaigns. But reformers say there are three ways to level the playing field a bit.
First, a system could be set up to provide matching dollars for small donations, amplifying the voice of ordinary people. A proposal backed by Common Cause Illinois would provide six-to-one matching for races in Chicago for candidates who agree to certain limitations. The concept also is supported by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, executive director Sarah Brune said.
Second, political donations should be transparent. “Dark money” — cash flowing in from unknown sources — makes it possible for candidates to amass large sums without voters knowing where the money came from. For example, a group called the Fight Back Fund has donated $1 million to support a constitutional amendment to prevent Illinois transportation funds from being spent elsewhere in the budget. But the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform has been unable to learn much about where the money came from, Brune said.
Third, existing federal laws should be better enforced. Nonprofit political fund-raising groups are not supposed to coordinate their efforts with political candidates. Nor should they claim nonprofit status if they are supporting particular candidates. But many nonprofits are “skirting the line or blatantly ignoring” the rules, said Kent Redfield, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois-Springfield who tracks campaign spending.
Until the money in politics is better regulated, the voice of the Average Joe and Jane will barely be heard in the most important races.