Dan McMillan’s quest to empower voters through campaign finance reform

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 07-18-2023 4:08 PM

The numbers have only grown more staggering in recent years. 

The 2022 election cycle cost over $8.9 billion, according to Open Secrets, which tracks money in politics. That’s up from $7.1 billion in 2018 and $3.6 billion just 20 years ago. The 2020 campaign was another record-breaker: $14.4 billion spent across the presidential and congressional campaigns, blasting past the previous record set in 2016, when a little over $6 billion was spent.

Sen. Maggie Hassan raised over $41 million for her 2022 re-election campaign, up from the $18.5 million she raised in 2016; Sen. Jeanne Shaheen raised $19.4 million for her most recent campaign in 2020.

Campaign spending has only grown in size as Americans continue to display a significant lack of trust in government. Dan McMillan, founder of the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Save Democracy in America, hopes to garner support around New Hampshire for his movement to reform how elections are funded.

He’s spending the week speaking at rotary clubs around the state. He’ll be at the Capital City Sunrise Rotary Club of Concord at 7:30 on Thursday morning to discuss the subject. 

“Right now, so many of us feel powerless and disenfranchised, and with good reason,” said McMillan, who’s worked previously as a lawyer for the district attorney’s office in Brooklyn, N.Y. and as a professor of history at Columbia University. “Our vote still counts for something, and we definitely all should vote, but still, our vote doesn't count for anywhere near as much as it should.”

In 1976, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that Congress could not place limits on how much campaigns spend, citing the First Amendment. Simply put, restrictions on spending meant a restriction of free speech.

Then in 2010 in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court ruled that the freedom of speech clause prevents the government from limiting independent expenditures on campaigns by corporations. This ruling led to massive outside spending on elections.

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With federal limitations on campaign spending seemingly not a feasible option to reverse the trend, McMillan is advocating for a different strategy: democracy dollars.

In this model, the government would give every registered voter an account with campaign cash. The money can’t be taken out and spent on anything; rather, people would be able to assign that money to any candidates they want to support. 

Seattle, Washington has used this system in its elections since 2017; a 2022 study from the University of Washington found that giving four $25 vouchers to each registered voter nearly quadrupled the number of donors per race and resulted in an 86% increase in how many candidates ran for office. United States Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who represents much of Seattle in Congress, introduced the Democracy Dollars Act in 2021. No subsequent action was taken.

If this model could be funded at a high enough level, McMillan believes, candidates wouldn’t need to turn to massive corporations to fund their campaigns and could be responsive to the constituents they’re elected to represent.

“It puts power directly in the hands of each individual voter, and the Supreme Court really has no basis for striking it down the way it’s struck down laws that limit spending because it doesn’t limit anyone’s spending,” McMillan said. “It gives the power of political speech to 168 million registered voters who didn’t have it before because most of us don't have enough money lying around that we feel we can afford to give to campaigns.”

What lies ahead

McMillan’s speaking events around New Hampshire are just the first step in what he knows will be a long journey to try to enact some sort of election finance reform. 

It all starts with these types of grassroots efforts, he said. Because so many politicians are currently trapped in their dependence on campaign donors to keep their seats, his hope is that significant pressure from voters and more national discourse on the subject will push them to reconsider the issue.

In the short-term, McMillan hopes to help pass a bill in New Hampshire that establishes this voter-voucher system for the gubernatorial and executive council races. 

The state House of Representatives tried and failed to pass a bill in February that would set up this type of system. with 200 members voting against it and 163 voting in favor. All 163 supporters of the bill were Democrats. 

Even though the bill failed, McMillan’s work aims to continually spread the idea of voter-owned elections, hopeful that this can spur more pressure on legislators to support reform.

By the 2028 election cycle, he said he’d love for voter-owned elections to be part of the conversation as New Hampshire voters vet candidates during the state’s presidential primary season.

“If enough New Hampshire voters say to candidates in the next cycle, ‘I want my government to not be for sale to campaign donors. I want an end to this nonsense. I want voter-owned elections,’ then candidates are going to have to talk about it,” he said. “National media are going to have to talk about it. Then it’s on the national agenda in a presidential year, and then we're in a whole new ballgame.”

Although the New Hampshire bill only received partisan support, national polling suggests bipartisan agreement on limiting political campaign spending. McMillan said he’s found similar bipartisan agreement when he hears from voters about the democracy dollars plan.

“Given how polarized the country is, if we’re really going to turn things around, fix the system, we have to find a step that commands bipartisan support,” he said. “This one does have that going for it.”

The country still has a long way to go, but McMillan feels democracy dollars could produce a tangible solution to help address the fact that voters believe politicians to be more beholden to their campaign contributors and their parties than they are to their constituents.

“We’re getting to a point I think where a consensus is building among Americans that this isn’t working,” McMillan said. “In fact, I think Americans have been saying for some time this isn’t working. But up until now, no one has really stepped up with an actionable demand, a step that really would be impactful and that Republicans and Democrats can agree on.”

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