May 1, 2004
The racial divide: campaign finance
Money may be coloring American politics. As African American and Latino organizations gear up to generate strong minority turnout at the polls in November, the voting strength of America’s racial minorities is likely to be trumped by a small group of wealthy white political campaign donors.
Color of Money 2003, a study released by Public Campaign, the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, and the William C. Velasquez Institute, found that in the 2000 and 2002 election cycles, nearly 90% of the more than $2 billion contributed to federal political campaigns came from individuals living in zip codes that had a majority of white residents, and almost half of those dollars came from a person living in a wealthy zip code. By contrast, 2.8% of campaign funds came from predominantly African American zip codes.
“Campaign money — not votes — is now the currency of our democracy, determining who is able to run a viable campaign for office, who usually wins, and who has the ear of elected officials,” said Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign. Stephanie Moore, executive director of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project adds, “The current campaign finance system acts like a modern-day poll tax, blocking low and moderate income voters from having an equal, effective voice in the political process.”
Even in predominantly black districts, wealthier white contributors from outside often play a crucial role in selecting which blacks have money to run for office. “Today it costs from $1 million to $2 million to run for a contested House seat in Congress. And it’s hard to raise that kind of money from small contributors,” says Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.).
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that only 8,870 donors gave $10,000 or more to federal campaigns, totaling $275.6 million. Although apathy may be part of the problem, a primary reason people of color contribute fewer dollars has to do with racial disparities in wealth, says Spencer Overton, an associate professor of law at George Washington University who sits on the board of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project. Consequently, federal, state, and local policies on issues like criminal justice, healthcare, and education often fail African Americans.
Spencer says Africans Americans need to take a leading role in campaign finance reform favoring those who contribute less than $100. So far, activists have passed Clean Money/Clean Elections campaign finance laws in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Vermont. Spencer adds, “We need to focus our limited resources on cutting-edge black political organizations such as Future PAC, which raises money for black female candidates, and NAACP National Voter Fund.”