Separate and Unequal
World of campaign cash remains starkly segregated
We've known for a long time now that the people giving money to candidates are a small group. What we didn't know, but always suspected, was that this group doesn't look much like America.
Now it seems our suspicions were right, according to the recent report "The Color of Money: Campaign Contributions and Race," prepared by the nonprofit group Public Campaign. The study, which maps the politics of money, shows that people of color are largely absent from the world of campaign financing, which has become one of the most crucial elements of the election process.
"It should be the people and not the almighty dollar that speak on Election Day," said U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). "Public Campaign's report shows that now, more than ever, there is a need to reform our system of campaign financing to ensure that one person, one vote remains a fundamental principle of our democratic process."
How wide is the money gap in South Carolina? Using data from the 1990 census, together with data on contributions for the 1995_1996 federal election cycle, the report showed that the average contribution in the top three ZIP codes -- which are predominantly white -- was 10 times that of the 100 mostly black ZIP codes. The three ZIP code areas that gave the most money contributed 14 percent more than all 100 ZIP codes in which blacks are the majority population.
The findings are significant because those who give the most money to candidates have the most influence over politicians and policy.
"The world of campaign finance is as segregated as any other area of American society," said Ellen Miller, Public Campaign's executive director. "In this case, those who cannot afford to give money are effectively shut out of the political process."
In the 1996 elections, 92 percent of the House races and 88 percent of the Senate races were won by the candidate who spent the most money.
In the last four presidential primaries, the candidate who had the most money by Jan. 1 of the election year has won the party's nomination -- Democrats and Republicans alike.
While the "Color of Money" report focused on the disparity between whites and blacks, the participation rate of donors to political campaigns is skewed in other ways as well. Only one in five donors is a woman, although females make up more than half of the population. And while only 12.8 percent of the country is 65 years or older, nearly half of the donors said they were over the age of 60.
These numbers have enormous implications, especially for those of us who fall outside the elite circle of donors filling campaign coffers.
As Barry Gold-water said 10 years ago, "To be successful, representative government assumes that elections will be controlled by the citizenry at large, not by those who give the most money. Electors must believe their vote counts. Elected officials must owe their allegiance to the people, not to their own wealth or to the wealth of interest groups who speak only for the selfish fringes of the whole community."