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In New Jersey’s congressional primaries, bigger wallets give a small set of mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by NJPIRG Law and Policy Center and Demos. Just 383 donors who gave $1,000 or more to candidates in the primaries outspent the at least 6,871 small donors who gave less than $200, and 66 percent of all candidate contributions came from donors giving chunks of $1,000 or more.
“Some argue about which party benefits the most from the new Wild West of campaign finance, or claim that so long as both major candidates in an election are well-financed, our democracy is working the way it should,” said Lubabah Chowdhury, Campaign Organizer with NJPIRG Law and Policy Center. “But that misses the forest for the trees: small donors’ voices are increasingly drowned out by the spending of a small cadre of large donors, and ordinary citizens are the ones who lose out.”
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions undermining campaign finance rules, most notably Citizens United v FEC, New Jersey’s elections have become increasingly flooded by large donations. And big money, often from out-of-district donors, can have an increased effect in primaries because often, spending in the primaries is lower than in the general election. The effect of this “money primary” is that it systematically disadvantages grassroots-fueled candidates who appeal to ordinary voters, but not to big donors.
The NJPIRG Law and Policy Center/Demos analysis examined contributions in congressional primaries in all states except Louisiana (which holds its primary on Election Day), and compared fund-raising from large donors (contributions of $1,000 or more in at least one race) and small donors (who gave $200 or less). Among its findings:
- Just 383 large donors in New Jersey contributed as much as the at least 6,871 small donors combined in its congressional primaries, ranking it 34th out of 50. The state with the greatest inequity between small and large donors was Texas, with a single large donors (a self-financed candidate) exceeding all small contributions from a minimum of 8,767 small donors.
- In terms of the percentage of primary funds coming from large donors, New Jersey came in 25th out of 50, at 66%; the top slot was taken by Texas, with 80% of primary contributions coming from large donors.
“Indeed, how candidates and parties collect money and how they spend it is all-consuming for those engaged in running government in the Garden State. Money wins elections—and money gains power,” said former gubernatorial candidate Bill Schluter.
There are successful, proven models to empower small donors, so that their voices play a more central role in our democracy, such as providing tax credits and public matching funds for small donations. For example, in New York City’s 2013 city council campaigns, small donors were responsible for 61% of participating candidates’ contributions, when funds from a matching program are included. In 2009, all but two of the 51 winning candidates participated in the small donor program, showing that candidates are able to raise the money they need to win without looking for large-dollar contributions.
“If our primaries just help select the candidate with the most appeal to big donors, our democracy will suffer,” said Chowdhury. “Mega-donors shouldn’t get to drown out the rest of our voices by virtue of having deeper pockets.”
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