It was not too long ago that in many states individuals had to pay to vote.
As recently as the 1950s, if you could not pay a poll tax — an actual tax required before one could exercise their constitutional right to vote — you could not participate in the electoral process. Created with the specific goal of preventing African Americans from voting, these poll taxes had grandfather clauses: if your grandfather could vote (before the Civil War) then you could, too. That meant most whites were exempt from the tax.
Today, money is again having a nefarious effect on politics, perpetuating all kinds of inequality.
First and foremost, money has almost become the sole determining factor as to who can run for office. It now takes millions of dollars to even consider running for Congress, Senate or governor. As a result, there are a lot of 1 percenters and millionaires in high office, and very few middle-class, working-class, and poor people — and hardly any people of color.
President Barack Obama is a rare exception. In the US Senate, there are currently only two Latinos, one Asian American, no African Americans, and not one woman of color. If Senators mirrored the real US population, 27 of them would be people of color.
If you want to run for Congress or Senate or governor and you do not have millions of dollars of your own, you need to raise it. That means spending most of your time on the phone with wealthy people talking about issues that appeal to them — and little or no real time talking to ordinary people like you and me.
For those politicians who do get elected, the lobbying process extends and expands inequality. By hiring former senators and members of Congress, their family members, and their friends and former staff members, lobbying firms working for big corporations ensure that our elected officials learn all about their particular interests and points of view, instead of learning about the needs of the people they are supposed to represent.
In 2010, in Washington, DC, about $3.5 billion was spent on lobbying, mostly by large corporations and big businesses. Another $100 million was spent right here at home, lobbying Beacon Hill.
While average American families struggle, banks get billion-dollar taxpayer-funded bailouts, and give their executives million-dollar bonuses. Many of the largest corporations still enjoy custom tax loopholes, so they pay no taxes at all. We foot the bill.
Corporate agendas rarely reflect the perspectives of working families, women and people of color. According to the Alliance for Board Diversity, fewer than 10 percent of the directors of Fortune 500 companies are minorities, and only 12.7 percent are white women. Three out of every four are white men.
This year, the problem of corporate money in politics is poised to get even worse. Two years ago, the Supreme Court decided in FEC v. Citizens United that corporations could dip directly into their bank accounts to spend money to elect or defeat candidates.
Since this woeful decision, million-dollar contributions have been made to so-called Super PACs, including anonymous donations made through shell corporations — made up legal entities created only for the purpose of hiding the identities of donors.
Without a doubt, the issue of fixing the problem of money in politics so that the political system can deliver meaningful improvements to the lives of ordinary people is one of the great civil rights battles of our time.
To combat racial injustice, the civil rights struggles of the ’50s and ’60s took marches, protests, sit-ins, boycotts, coalitions, and landmark legal rulings.
It also took partnerships between men and women, whites and people of color, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and atheists. Ultimately these working coalitions and partnerships resulted in national legislation like the Voting Rights Act and a constitution amendment to ban poll taxes.
It took decades of work. But it was worth doing. Let’s hope this generation is up to the challenge.
Cheryl Clyburn Crawford and Avi Green are co-directors of MassVOTE.