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Money in Politics: A Barrier to Civil Rights?

Some experts say money from special interest groups drowns out the voice of ordinary voters. Credit: Alvimann/Morguefile
Some experts say money from special interest groups drowns out the voice of ordinary voters. Credit: Alvimann/Morguefile
October 15, 2015

DURHAM, N.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision opened the floodgates of political spending by allowing unlimited spending by outside political groups, or super PACS.

And today, experts are gathering in Durham to examine how money in politics is a civil rights issue.

Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, says money from special interest groups is a serious threat to democracy because it drowns out the voice of ordinary voters.

"It helps influence which candidates have the most resources and are considered viable, what issues get talked about during campaigns, who lawmakers listen to once they're in office and all this fundamentally goes against the idea that all citizens should have an equal say in the democracy, you know – one person one vote," he points out.

Kromm adds that North Carolina is an increasingly diverse state, but he says research finds the majority of big political donors are white residents, which causes a large disconnect between voters and candidates.

Spending in North Carolina's U.S. Senate race last year was more than $100 million, making it the most expensive Congressional race in history.

A recent New York Times report found that just 158 families, or the corporations they represent, have accounted for about half of the money spent in the 2016 race so far, spending $250,000 each.

Kromm contends that kind of spending restricts who can run for office.

"That limits our choices to just those who can amass huge sums of money,” he stresses. “So the question is no longer whether or not you have a good platform, good ideas, can inspire voters, but it's more about the size of your wallet. "

Kromm says that North Carolina was once a leader in cleaner elections with a program implemented in 2004 that gave judicial candidates a public campaign grant for agreeing to strict spending and fundraising limits.

"It passed with bipartisan support,” he states. “Eighty percent of judges used it. And a lot of judges who ran said it was great because instead of dialing for dollars and trying to hustle up money during the campaign, they were talking to voters about what they cared about as judges. "

The program was nixed in 2013 as part of HB 589, a sweeping voting reform bill currently challenged in federal courts.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - NC