What will it take to rein in Big Money?

The corrosive influence of Big Money over elections is sparking protests -- and inspiring a movement for reform. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Public Citizen via Flickr.)

On Oct. 16, 2014, Ellen Weintraub -- a member of the Federal Election Commission, an agency launched in 1975 after the Watergate scandal to watchdog campaign spending -- visited North Carolina to talk about the rising influence of money in U.S. politics. Institute for Southern Studies Executive Director Chris Kromm joined Weintraub and state Rep. Pricey Harrison on a panel in Raleigh to discuss the new threats money poses to our democracy, and what can be done about it. The following is an edited version of Kromm's remarks.

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Greetings, and thank you for inviting me to be part of this critical discussion about money in our democracy.

I'm especially honored to be here with two individuals -- Commissioner Weintraub and Rep. Harrison -- who have shown remarkable leadership, at the federal and state level, in helping us grapple with this question of how best to ensure that money isn't allowed to drown the voice of ordinary voters.

"One person, one vote" -- that's one of the defining ideas of our democracy. The notion that it doesn't matter where you come from, who you are, how much money you make, all of us should have the same say in the decisions that affect our lives.

But the tidal wave of money flooding into our elections carries us further and further away from that ideal. It's clear that we urgently need an honest conversation about the impact this money is having on our political system, and the best way to strengthen the voice of everyday voters in the face of this Big Money assault.

Of course, the issue of money in politics is nothing new. But the scale of spending by wealthy donors and special interests is in the rise. The avenues and channels powerful interests have at their disposal to exert influence have grown. And perhaps most disturbingly, a growing share of this money is hidden from public view, leaving the public in the dark about who is trying to influence our elections and what agenda they have in store.

This election year, candidates for U.S. House and Senate to date have raised nearly $1.2 billion for their campaigns, a number that grows every day.

That doesn't include the money flowing in from outside groups -- 527 super PACs, 501c4 "social welfare organizations," business associations, and others who are spending money this election season that is, at least ostensibly, not coordinated with a campaign or party.

According to the latest data, the total of this independent spending is nearing $500 million -- a number that is also relentlessly growing as we move closer to Election Day.

And a large and growing share of that is so-called "dark money" spent by groups that don't have to disclose their donors. A recent report by The New York Times found that about 55 percent of this outside money flows through dark money groups, where the donors aren't disclosed, with the remaining 45 percent being spent by super PAC-style committees, which do list their contributors.

You see the impact of the election spending arms race in state politics in North Carolina as well. In some ways, special interest money has an even bigger influence at the state and local level. When a super PAC or political group unleashes $100,000 or a quarter million in a Congressional race, it's a drop in the bucket. But that kind of money can make a big difference in a small state house or senate district.

And that’s what we've increasingly seen in recent years. In 2010, the year of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, more than $2.6 million from outside groups flooded into elections for the N.C. General Assembly. Roughly three-quarters of that came from groups connected to millionaire conservative donor Art Pope, giving Republicans a 10-to-1 advantage in outside spending that contributed to their historic gains in the legislature.

At the Institute for Southern Studies, we were closely watching this money and realized there was no easy, accessible way for media and the public to see what groups were spending and how they were influencing state politics. We launched FollowNCMoney.org, which since its launch in spring 2012 has tracked nearly 1,000 expenditures.

In 2012, more than $14.5 million was spent by these outside groups in state-level races. One of the biggest surprises was that $2.9 million of that were ads for a N.C. Supreme Court race, with 90 percent of the money benefiting the conservative incumbent justice Paul Newby. The infamous "banjo ads" that blanketed the state were backed by a maze of donors and groups, with the bulk of the money originating in a D.C.-based super PAC, the Republican State Leadership Committee.

My associate Alex Kotch at the Institute for Southern Studies, who runs our FollowNCMoney.org website, has detailed the backers of the RSLC, who include Duke Energy, Reynolds Tobacco and many other interests in North Carolina that frequently have business before the state courts.

This year we're seeing more of the same, with at least $3.2 million in spending by outside groups, with much more that hasn't been reported yet.

After the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, the federal government moved to more clearly regulate campaign spending. But in recent years, we've seen a chipping away of campaign finance reform, including decisions like Citizens United, which loosened corporate spending on elections, and McCutcheon, which raised spending limits.

We've seen the same erosion of key campaign finance reforms at the state level.

For more than a decade, North Carolina had been a beacon of light in the campaign finance reform movement. Due to tenacious advocacy from public interest and election reform groups, our state passed a series of laws that improved disclosure and transparency about spending. North Carolina also implemented voter-owned "clean elections" public financing programs that helped dramatically curb special interest spending in judicial races, and later several Council of State races.

These reforms have all come under attack in North Carolina. In the massive 56-page election law passed in 2013, provisions for voter ID and cutting early voting days received a lot of media attention. But the bill also rolled back more than a decade of progress [pdf] in improving accountability and transparency in North Carolina election spending.

The bill eliminated the state's "clean elections" reforms. It raised the limit on how much a donor can give to a candidate or PAC from $4,000 to $5,000 per election cycle, and boosted the limits for judges from $1,000 to $5,000 per election.

It lowered disclosure and increased the "dark period" between the primaries and general elections when outside groups don't have to disclose money coming in or going out. It eliminated a law requiring that print ads or mailers from outside groups list the top five donors backing the ad. It increased ways parties can raise money for a "building fund."

Together, these changes gave Big Money new ways to play a bigger role in deciding the future of North Carolina politics.

Fortunately, North Carolina is ahead of other states in that we still have a law the requires even "dark money" groups to list the donors funding specific electioneering or expenditures. But groups find ways around that, too. Often the donors listed are just other dark money groups, so you end up knowing as little as you did when you started.

The good news for reformers is that there's clearly a growing frustration with the role Big Money plays in our system.

People say they are frustrated about the negativity and lack of civility in politics. A big factor driving that is money: The vast majority of the new spending in politics -- especially from super PACs and other outside groups -- goes to fund nasty TV attack ads. It's up to reformers to connect the dots, to show how unaccountable Big Money spending is fueling the vitriol and polarization in our political system.

Big Money in politics also reinforces and exacerbates the already-growing inequities in our society. It gives a tiny sliver of the population an outsized voice in the political process. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2013-2014 election 43 percent of all money given to Congressional campaigns have come from just 0.19 percent of the population. Not 19 percent, not 1.9 percent -- 0.19 percent. That means that in a room of 500 people, 1 person would account for nearly half the spending. That flies in the face of the idea of "one person, one vote."

Even many candidates and lawmakers don't like the current system. They feel trapped in the arms race; instead of talking to voters, researching issues, holding forums, many find themselves holed up in their offices, dialing for dollars. By one estimate, Congressional candidates spend between 30 to 70 percent of their time holed up in their offices begging for money -- hustling for dollars instead of representing their constituents.

In the face of this discouraging situation, outrage of Big Money's growing influence has sparked a variety of innovative efforts for reform.

Shareholders at big companies like Reynolds Tobacco and others are pushing their companies to be more transparent about their political contributions, especially to dark money groups.

Campaign donors -- some probably tired of being hit up for money every election cycle -- have added their voice to the list of supporters for many campaign finance reforms.

In many big races across the country, you've seen candidates call for a "People's Pledge" agreement in their races, where candidates agree to disavow outside spending attacks.

We see creative efforts like Lawrence Lessig's Mayday PAC -- a super PAC to fight super PACs -- that's raising money to back candidates who support clean elections reform at the federal level.

From the federal to state level, there are efforts to increase disclosure -- more information about donors and spending, released more frequently and in a more accessible format -- that address the public's right to know about who is spending big money to influence their political system.

None of these efforts, in and of themselves, will solve the problem. But they are all pieces that, put together, can slowly but steadily return greater power to voters -- incremental reforms that can build momentum and add up to bigger changes.

The people -- ordinary voters -- need to continue speaking out, letting our officials know that we are concerned about the threat Big Money poses. Key decisions are being made about the ways in which powerful interests can shape our political system for years to come. Now is the time to speak out, to make it clear that this issue matters -- and bring us closer to the ideal of "one person, one vote."