Saturday marked the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision, which eliminated limits on aggregate campaign donations, the total amount an individual can donate to all candidates for federal office and national party committees.
Once again equating campaign contributions to speech, the court held that the “right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment.” Though McCutcheon is not as well-known as the disastrous Citizens United case of 2010, taken together these two decisions have unleashed a torrent of money into a political system already flush with cash.
As a one-time National Finance Chair of the Democratic Party and a longtime political activist and fundraiser, it is clear to me that comprehensive campaign finance reform is badly needed, and our failure to act is putting our democracy at risk.
The damage to our political system has been well articulated. We are living in an age of super PACs, dark money and “jumbo joint financing committees.” The barriers to entry for individuals seeking elected office are high and growing higher.
But what concerns me most is the impact these decisions, and the complicated fundraising “innovations” they have spawned, will have on one group in particular: young people.
As the Dean of Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, I see a compelling and urgent need to engage young people in our civic life and political discourse. Every day I meet young people who want to serve and make a difference. But increasingly, they do not see political engagement as a means for doing so.
Young people have the power to shape elections, but that potential is largely unfulfilled. There are roughly 49 million people ages 18-29 who are eligible to vote, more than the 45 million eligible seniors. But these young voices are not heard, and their voting and participation rates are low. An analysis of census data shows that in 2014, only 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they voted, the lowest youth turnout rate ever recorded in a federal election.
Even in the current primary season, which has been marked by increased voter participation among young people, particularly on the Republican side, and enthusiasm for nontraditional candidates, the youth vote still lags behind older voters in all contests thus far.
Part of the reason for this gap is disillusionment with our political system. A recent survey by Luntz Global asked young people to “describe America’s problems in one word.” The No. 1 choice was corruption.
Young people are unlikely to have the capacity to give to campaigns—or they may feel no stake in doing so. In 2012, an American National Election Study found that a considerably smaller percentage of young people (about 5 percent) made campaign contributions compared to other age groups.
Decisions like McCutcheon and Citizens United do nothing to dispel the widely held view among young people that the system is not working for them.
There are other reasons as well. Too many technical barriers prevent young people (and other groups, too) from voting. Voter identification laws, inconvenient polling places, restrictions on when and where voters can register, and the difficulty of absentee voting all affect younger voters.
Campaigns and candidates often treat young people as a monolith, and ignore issues that may be relevant to their lives. Many assume that young people only care about student debt. They miss the fact that nearly 20 percent are parents, and issues like early childhood education are just as important. Furthermore, Tisch College’s CIRCLE has consistently found that young people respond when they are invited to participate, but too often, they are not.
When we throw roadblocks in the way of young people voting, when we don’t ask them what issues they care about and assume we already know, we are reinforcing a narrative that young people aren’t interested in political participation. When we add to that an increasingly gold-plated campaign finance system, it’s no wonder that 60 percent of young people say “Washington embodies what’s wrong with America,” according to the Luntz survey.
All of this would be downright discouraging were it not for the remarkable idealism and energy of a young generation with so much to offer. We desperately need their talent, diversity, activism and civic engagement. Stemming the flow of money in our political system is a good place to start.
Alan D. Solomont is the Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. He is the former U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra, former chair of the bipartisan board of directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service and served as national finance chair of the Democratic Party from 1997 to 1998.