COVER STORY | What we learned about the 'U' Factor (copy)

 An election worker takes primary ballots in Denver in June 2018.

Amanda Gonzalez

Amanda Gonzalez

Editor's note: Now through Wednesday, Colorado Politics presents eight perspectives on campaign finance reform.

Too often in today’s state of politics, too many voters feel like their voices are not being heard in government. It often seems like big-money special-interest groups write the political rules on the backs of dark-money checks, while the rest of us don’t stand a chance of electing candidates who will represent our interests or even hear our concerns.

While our system for funding and running political campaigns is certainly out of balance, a new reform approved by Denver voters last year has the potential to change the entire system to ensure the people have a bigger say in the future of our communities.

Like most Coloradans, Colorado Common Cause knows that money has too much power in our political system. That’s why we advocate for solutions to reduce the undue influence of big corporations and the uber-rich on elections, while at the same time enhancing of the voices of everyday voters.

We focus on innovative reforms that enable small-dollar donors to make meaningful impacts in campaigns. We also work to ensure the full disclosure of all campaign money raised and spent; increase transparency in the lobbying process; remove the financial barriers that stop everyday people from running for office, and hold elected officials and wealthy special interests accountable to voters.

Even within the challenges brought on by the U.S. Supreme Court’s unpopular and unfair decisions in Citizens United v. FEC and Buckley v. Valeo, it is still possible to stand up to wealthy special interests and amplify the voices of everyday people. In fact, in 2018, Denver voters did just that by passing ballot measure 2E, the Democracy for the People initiative. Co-authored by Colorado Common Cause, Colorado Ethics Watch, CoPIRG, and Clean Slate Now, this measure lowers contribution limits, eliminates direct business contributions to candidates, and created a new citizen-funded election program.

Can you imagine what would happen if more regular people could get elected? If a candidate’s viability was judged by their ability to represent their neighbors and community rather than their ability to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars? If working-class and middle-class people — not just those connected to the wealthy donors and rich friends — actually had more chances to run for office and (gasp) win. 

Citizen-funded elections help break down the barriers limiting participation in our democracy, thereby creating a government that looks like us and works for us. Part of what Denver voters approved in 2E was the creation of a Fair Elections Fund, which will enable candidates to finance competitive elections without having to take special-interest money and the strings that always come with the cash.

After proving they are a viable contender, enrolled candidates will be able to receive matching funds for small contributions for Denver residents from the Fair Elections Fund at a ratio of 9 to 1. This will amplify the role of average city residents — those who don’t have thousands of dollars to contribute to candidates — in financing elections. It will make it possible for more women, people of color, and those of modest means to run and get elected to public offices.

Beginning in 2021, when the measure takes effect, it will mean that the quality of a candidate’s character and strength of their skills, rather than their capacity to woo wealthy donors, will be the predictor of their ability to win an election. We have seen similar programs work to ensure a fairer electoral process in states and cities across the country, including in Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, and New York City.

Wealthy special-interest groups want average people to believe that we’ve been beaten. They want to silence our voices. They want voters for forget that it’s everyday people, not special interests and not corporations that cast ballot in elections. It’s the people who have the final say in how our government operates. And we have the power to improve our campaign finance system.

Innovative cities like Denver are improving the system as we speak and there is so much more we can do.

Amanda Gonzalez is executive director of Colorado Common Cause.

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