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In Massachusetts’ congressional primaries, bigger wallets give a small set of mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by the MASSPIRG Education Fund and Demos. Just 230 donors who gave $1,000 or more to candidates in the primaries outspent the (at least) 6,654 small donors who gave less than $200, and 66% percent of all candidate contributions came from donors giving contributions of $1,000 or more.
“Some argue about which party benefits the most from the new Wild West of campaign finance, ” said Janet Domenitz, Executive Director of the MASSPIRG Education Fund. “But that misses the forest for the trees: small donors’ voices are increasingly drowned out by the spending of a small cadre of large donors, and ordinary citizens are the ones who lose out.”
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions undermining campaign finance rules, most notably Citizens United v FEC, Massachusetts elections have become increasingly flooded by large donations. And big money, often from out-of-district donors, can have an increased effect in primaries because spending is often lower than in the general election. The effect of this “money primary” is that it systematically disadvantages grassroots-fueled candidates who appeal to ordinary voters, but not to big donors.
The MASSPIRG Education Fund/Demos analysis examined contributions in congressional primaries in all states except Louisiana (which holds its primary on Election Day), and compared fund-raising from large donors (contributions of $1,000 or more in at least one race) and small donors (who gave $200 or less). Among its findings:
• Just 230 large donors in Massachusetts contributed as much as the at least 6,654 small donors combined in its congressional primaries, ranking it 23rd in the country.
• Nationwide, fewer than 5,500 large donors outspent at least 440,000 small donors. If that were a single race, it would mean that a candidate who got 10,000 people to give a donation would lose out in the money race to someone who only got 125 contributions.
• In terms of the percentage of primary funds coming from large donors, Massachusetts came in 23rd at 66%; the top slot was taken by Texas, with 80% of primary contributions coming from large donors.
There are successful, proven models to empower small donors, so that their voices play a more central role in our democracy, such as providing tax credits and public matching funds for small donations. For example, in New York City’s 2013 city council campaigns, small donors, backed up by funds from the city’s matching program, were responsible for 61% of participating candidates’ contributions. In 2009, all but two of the 51 winning candidates participated in the small donor program, showing that candidates are able to raise the money they need to win without looking for large-dollar contributions.
“If our primaries just help select the candidate with the most appeal to big donors, our democracy will suffer,” said Domenitz. “Mega-donors shouldn’t get to drown out the rest of our voices by virtue of having deeper pockets.”
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