UConnPIRG, the largest student-run grassroots organization on campus tabled outside of the library to raise awareness about their Democracy Now campaign.
PIRG is a network of non-profit public interest organizations and ConnPirg is the largest in Connecticut. The group works to generate grassroots action on non-partisan issues that hold a powerful public interest.
The Democracy Now campaign for campaign finance reform and for the implementation of public financed small donor empowerment programs reflects just that. Bob Hannan, UConnPIRG Grassroots Coordinator for the Democracy Now campaign explained.
“What we’re doing is collecting petitions for the town of Mansfield to get Mansfield to carry over to a small donation matching incentive program. I’m involved in this campaign because I feel like corporations are drowning out the public opinion and public interest and really our politicians are focusing on issues regarding where their money comes from rather than the people that are actually voting for them. So what we’re trying to do is phase that out and this campaign is a great way to do that”
Campaign finance has become a polarizing issue ever since the Citizens United Supreme Court case in 2010. The case ruled that political spending is protected under the First Amendment, freeing corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums of money on political activities as long as it is done independently of a candidate or party.
The result has been a rush of money into super PACs, which organizations like UConnPIRG believe has produced candidates that merely reflect the interests of their big donors rather than the public interest.
Small donor empowerment programs have been created in response. Candidates who enroll in these programs are prohibited from receiving donations from big businesses and in return the municipality agrees to match all small donations generated from canvassing.
Saman Azimi is the ConnPirg treasurer and the state board chair of the organization.
“A big issue is that at the state level, there is a program in place called the Citizen’s Election Program where people who are running for CT general assembly seats can enroll into this same program but it has very severe loopholes that have arisen especially since Citizens United was passed. The program is ten years old now but since Citizens United, big issues happened like candidates can run and enroll in this program and get the matching funds but even though they can’t get money from big businesses, they can get unlimited money from the “Party Account.” So people who are Democrats can get money from the Democratic party, unlimited funds, same with the Republican party. There are those kinds of loopholes which make it difficult and allow big money back in even though the whole point of these programs is to keep big money out.”
While campaign finance reformers like UConnPIRG believe the role of the parties in campaign finance is just as problematic as super PAC’s, some think they play a vital role.
In Thomas B. Edsall’s opinion article for the New York Times, Ray La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, said, “if you want greater transparency, accountability and coalition-building it makes good sense to channel funds primarily through the party committees.”
Edsall agrees that “reinvigorating political parties by lifting all restrictions on the contributions they receive and on the way they spend their money -with maximum transparency- is the best option to encourage politicians to respond more to the public will and less to special interests.”
Azimi and UConnPIRG will continue tabling and canvassing to encourage University of Connecticut students to join their fight for campaign finance reform. They will be at town hall meetings in Mansfield and Windham to show local town council public interest for campaign finance reform.