Young voters and the small donor non-‘revolution’

Brennan Center for Justice grant writer Nate Frentz published a piece today on entitled “Protect Young Voters — save campaign finance reform.” Frentz bemons the potential impact of the upcoming decision in Citizens United v. FEC, worrying a decision affirming free speech rights would disenfranchise young voters. He speaks of the record number of voters in the 18-30 age bracket, and of the so-called “small-donor revolution” in the 2008 election, which Obama ethics lawyer Norm Eisen hilariously compared to the American revolution.

Frentz cites a Campaign Finance Institute study showing that “all small donors of any age account for only 6 to 22 percent of the funds collected by Democratic and Republican senatorial candidates,” but leaves out a huge CFI study that contradicts his next point about the “small-donor revolution.”

Apparently, the word revolution also does not carry a particularly strong implication in Frentz’s mind, as the percentage of Obama’s funds coming from small donors was 26 percent, while in 2004 President Bush’s campaign received 25 percent of its donations from small donors, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. Obama’s campaign finance lawyer Bob Bauer has disputed the methodology of this study, claiming that donors who repeatedly gave small amount adding up to over $200 (but less than $1,000) should be categorized as small donors and not “mid-range repeaters,” but the CFI study gave no such leeway to repeat direct mail small donors for Bush, etc.

The main point of this post, though, is that small donors will somehow be drowned out by corporate independent expenditures, as if an individual small donor’s contribution — or even the aggregate of small donor contributions — is somehow determinative from a financial perspective. Obama’s small donors — 26 percent of his haul, $117 million in all — is almost twice the $64 million pulled in by Bush, but that simply means that so-called large donors also donated a great deal more. As Brad Smith has pointed out, the maximum $4,600 total donation amounts to about two-thirds of one one-thousandth of one percent of Obama’s total campaign take. By Frentz’ standard, small donors are already drowned out by large donors, who are themselves drowned out by the campaign’s overall fundraising.

After spending the entire article lauding the power of the small donor in 2008, Frentz cites voluntary public funding as a route that will ensure that young Americans “still matter to our democracy, no matter how the [C]ourt rules,” while completely ignoring that in the past election, John McCain accepted taxpayer funding and was blown out in spending by a more than 2 to 1 ratio by the man spear-heading the “small donor revolution.” How ironic. If Citizens United wins big, and Austin and McConnell are overturned, it’s hard to imagine Congress voting to limit themselves with taxpayer money in their campaigns when others can speak freely. In fact, the better — and more likely — campaign finance solution would be for Congress to raise or repeal the arbitrary contribution limits.

The beauty of democracy in this country is that whether you donate $1 or $1,000,000, when the polls open, your vote is equal. If someone has a problem with a candidate benefiting from a corporate expenditure, they can simply vote for someone else, as is their right.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.