We now need to move from ad hoc, individual success stories to a systemic approach that can give all candidates and donors the opportunity to participate successfully in online fundraising.
Voters, for example, could easily create social networks of like-minded donors. Drawing on their social media communities and networks, they could organize large numbers of small contributions for a specific candidate. They could use any device, from a smart phone to a desktop, to contribute on a secure platform.
First-time candidates could also use new technologies to explore whether they would be able to mount financially viable campaigns for public office.
Notably, either approach can be accomplished through the private sector, requiring essentially no action by Congress. Changes in technology — unlike congressional legislation — move at warp speed.
Of course, the Internet and social media are not without their dangers for our elections, as continuing revelations about Russian interests using Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter to disrupt the 2016 presidential election have shown.
But change does not occur without risk — and change is essential, as shown by a New York Times/CBS News poll that found an overwhelming 85 percent of respondents supported either fundamental changes or a complete overhaul of the way our campaigns are financed.
A small-donor revolution could also be achieved by providing public funds to match small contributions to federal candidates; Congress came close to enacting congressional public financing in the 1970s and again in the 1990s.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) recently introduced legislation that would provide federal candidates six-to-one in public matching funds for up to $200 of individual contributions. (The formula is modeled on New York City’s successful matching funds system.) That means a donor’s $200 contribution would be worth $1,400 for a presidential or congressional candidate.
Given the polarized state of U.S. politics, enacting this kind of legislation would likely involve a major long-term effort. But members of Congress could ultimately come to see that the campaign finance system is so destructive to America’s democracy that the legislature must respond to the 85 percent of the public who want fundamental changes.
History shows that major scandals in Washington have triggered fundamental campaign finance reforms before.
The Watergate scandals during the 1972 presidential election, for example, revealed that big political donors used campaign contributions to obtain presidential decisions and buy ambassadorships. In response, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974, which established the presidential public financing system and $1,000 candidate contribution limits.