To Fred Wertheimer, there is one thing Americans agree on, even in this polarized political climate. 

“All the polls shows that the public strongly objects to the role big money is now playing in American politics. The polling doesn’t show much difference between Democrats, Republicans, or independents,” he said. 

According to an Associated Press National Constitution Center Poll conducted in August, 67 percent think there should be limits on the amount of money individuals can contribute to outside organizations trying to influence campaigns for president, Senate and U.S. House and an overwhelming majority — 83 percent — think there should be limits on corporations, unions and other organizations. 

Wertheimer, who has spent the better part of 40 years as an attorney and lobbyist focusing on the issue of campaign finance reform, speaks at the Holland Lecture Series on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center. Free tickets can be reserved by calling Ticket Omaha at 402-345-0606.

He worked for the non-profit Common Cause for 25 years and was its president for seventeen. He founded Democracy 21 — meaning democracy for the 21st century — to focus solely on the issue of money in politics. His speech is called, “A Disaster for Democracy: The Campaign Scandals of 2012.” When asked which scandals he was referring to, Wertheimer replied, “The system itself is a scandal. People react to scandals and we surely will have new scandals as a result of this system.”

“This is the first national presidential [election] where the impact of Citizens United is being felt,” Wertheimer said, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court decision that overturned portions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation and ushered in a new era of secret money, unlimited contributions, and corporate funds. “I expect there to be a backlash in 2013 and a major new reform movement to begin. We will see what happens when we see the results of the elections, no matter who wins. The money’s impact on government decisions will only come after the election.” 

The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics is a non-profit research group which tracks money in U.S. politics. According to the CRP website, outside spending in 2012 is currently at $859 million, up from $301 million in 2008.

Democracy 21 does not solicit members to become active on issues. The organization drafts legislation, lobbies on the issue of campaign finance reform, and defends the constitutionality of campaign finance legislation.  Wertheimer indicated that nothing is happening in Washington D.C. right now because everybody is waiting for the results of the election. It is a good time for him to travel and give lectures to the public.

“I’m an advocate. I see my role in this lecture series as trying to provide perspective and background on what is happening with our elections. And also to inform people about the kinds of things that can be done to fix the problem. These are difficult battles but history tells us that they can be won.”

Two ideas Wertheimer is promoting are increasing the importance of small donors and urging the public to support the DICSLOSE Act in Congress, which stands for “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections.” 

A report co-written with the Brennan Center at New York University describes the small donor idea this way. “We propose to engage and empower citizens in a small donor revolution by matching in-state contributions to candidates of up to $250 per donor with public funds at a 5 to 1 ratio. This would greatly increase the value of small contributions, dilute the importance of large contributions and provide new incentives for donors to give and candidates to seek small contributions.” Democracy21 also advocates innovative use of the internet so that millions of Americans can play a larger role in financing elections through small contributions.

When asked about using tax dollars to fund elections in a time of anti-tax sentiment, Wertheimer replied, “We have a corrupt campaign finance system now. That corruption effects all aspects of how taxes are raised and money spent. We can fix that corrupt system or not.” 

Despite the public’s disdain for secret money and unlimited contributions, the DISCLOSE Act is not supported by Republicans. It narrowly passed in the house in June, but was filibustered in the Senate. As Wertheimer wrote on the Democracy21 website, “Following the Watergate scandals, from 1976 until 2010 there was a consensus among Republicans and Democrats that disclosure is the cornerstone of campaign finance laws. This was the one issue in the campaign finance arena upon which Democratic and Republican members of Congress agreed. Following the Citizens United decision in 2010, however, congressional Republicans abruptly walked away from campaign finance disclosure.”

Wertheimer says the public must get involved for the situation to change. “The challenge ahead is to combine the general public rejection of this system and have that channelled into efforts to repair the system.”

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