They say that money talks, but in the Arkansas midterm elections last November, money was talking so loud that it was hard to hear much else.
By the time all was said and done, outside spending in the Arkansas Senate race had reached almost $40 million. It ranked among the top five Senate races in the country for the most outside spending. Local stations struggled to keep up with the deluge of around-the-clock political ads.
People in Arkansas may have gotten fed up with the influx of cash and the endless barrage of attack ads, but now they are turning that anger into action. In recent months organizers have been working to get a question on the 2016 ballot requiring increased disclosure of political spending and calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United that paved the way for unlimited outside spending in our elections. On Tuesday, local and national leaders will march to the Arkansas state Capitol to rally in support of this ballot initiative, calling attention to the big money takeover of state elections and tapping into the grassroots energy calling for change.
The ballot initiative would do a couple of important things. First, it would require more transparency in political spending in Arkansas, allowing everyday people to know who’s behind all the political ads and special interest money. Second, it would make clear that the people of Arkansas believe that lawmakers in the state and across the country should be able to set reasonable limits on money in elections. While this seems like a common-sense idea, rulings like Citizens United have left lawmakers unable to set those limits. As a result, outside spending in elections across the country has skyrocketed.
Together, it would be a big step forward for our democracy. Arkansas would join 16 other states and more than 650 towns in officially calling for an amendment to get big money out of politics.
One thing is abundantly clear: our big-money system is out of control. Leading up to the midterms, a single super PAC spent a million dollars on one week of ads in Arkansas. That’s not exactly the political system of, by, and for the people that our founders envisioned.
But we can change that. The state motto, regnat populus, means “the people rule.” Indeed, the political power in Arkansas, and across the country, is supposed to be centered in the hands of ordinary people. Now we have to fight to get back to a system that honors that state motto — one where we the people are in the driver’s seat of our democracy again.
Marge Baker is the executive vice president of People For the American Way. Jill Nguyen is a graduating senior at Hendrix College and a member of the Alumni Board of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For Program.