‟There are a couple times in my life when I have felt like I’ve just leapt off a tall building,” wrote Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig in a Tumblr post announcing his new project. ‟On the whole, I’ve decided, I’ve not had this feeling often enough. So today, I leap again—with certainly the biggest chance to fail of anything I’ve ever done.”
Lessig’s endeavor is certainly audacious. Earlier this week, the open Internet pioneer turned government crusader officially launched Mayday PAC, a super PAC that aims to raise money in support of candidates who will make the entire concept of super PACs a thing of the past.
PACs, or political action committees, are technically independent, nonprofit groups that act as pass-throughs for individuals or organizations to insert cash into the political system without running afoul of campaign finance laws. PACs have existed since the late 1940s, when Congress enacted a rule limiting what labor unions could directly spend on elections. (Corporations had been beholden to similar restrictions since around the turn of the century.) Further regulations in the 1970s, combined with a general drive within the American business community that it was time to get organized politically, spurred the creation of a litany of PACs.
However, it was the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case that super-sized PACs. The court cleared the way for PACs to spend unlimited amounts of money on politics as long as the groups refrained from directly coordinating with the official staffers of political campaigns and eventually disclosed the identities of their donors. Many super PACs have been able to skirt disclosure requirements by first running donations through a shadowy network of shell organizations legally allowed to keep their list of contributors secret.
Post-Citizens United the both the number of PACs in existence and the amount of money they inject into the political system have exploded.
According to OpenSecrets.org, super PACs have collectively spent almost a quarter of a billion dollars so far on the 2014 election cycle alone.
In a video outlining Mayday project, Lessig lays out the reasoning behind both the organization’s name and the inspiration for the organization itself:
Since the early 1920s, aviators and mariners have used the word ‛mayday’ to signal distress and to call for aid. On the sea at least, when another captain hears that call, there’s an obligation, a moral obligation, to lend aid. We are calling a may day on this democracy. Across this country, Americans on the left and the right have come to the view that our government is view and more than 90 of us link that failure to the role of money in politics.
Lessig has had a long and varied career that sits somewhere in the nexus of law, technology, and politics. He is a lawyer who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He has written extensively on the issues of technology and the need for copyright reform. He was a founding board member of copyright alternative Creative Commons and has spent recent years as one of the highest-profile advocates of the need for overhauling the country’ campaign financing system.
Lessig lays out the strategy for MayOne as a series of steps.
First, the group wants to raise $1 million in 30 days. If that’s successful, the plan is to raise $5 million in the next 30 days. The group says it has lined up donors to match those fundraising hauls, which would give it $12 million to be used on five specifically targeted midterm races this November. ‟Based on those results, we’ll launch a (much much) bigger effort in 2016,” Lessig wrote.
The campaign is structured like a Kickstarter donation drive. If MayOne isn’t able to raise 100 percent of its goal for any given round of fundraising, all of the donations it has already collected will go right back in the pockets of the donors
Lessig hasn’t specified which races his group plans on targeting during this year’s midterms, but he has indicated that he hopes the uncertainty could lead to candidates expressing their interest in pursuing reforms on his Reform.to site.
He also has not specified which deep-pocketed donors have pledged those matching donations. Representatives from the group did not immediately respond to a request for clarification.
Lessig hopes to raise this money by soliciting small-dollar donations from average citizens. This is in contrast to the way most super PACs operate, which is primarily through corporate support or large donations from a small group of extremely wealthy individuals. As the New York Times notes, of the nearly three dozen super PACs that have raised over a million dollars in anticipation of the 2014 elections, only six have done so by incorporating contributions from small donors.
If the proposition of creating an anti-super PAC super PAC seems reminiscent of comedian Stephen Colbert’s Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow PAC, that’s no accident. In a Reddit AMA held on Thursday, Lessig recounted how he initially wanted to tie his own effort to the future Tonight Show host’s satirical stab into the very heart of money in politics. ‟I tried to pitch Colbert on this idea when he launched his super PAC— a super PAC to end all super Pacs,” Lessig wrote. ‟He was worried it wouldn't be funny. That's when I knew it was perfect for me.”
The end game is to raise an enormous amount of money for the 2016 election cycle and use that money to put a critical mass of candidates in office who support campaign finance reform. The goal may be lofty, but only two days into the project, the campaign has already raised over $300,000.
Post-Citizens United, the majority of the energy directed to slow the torrent of outside money flooding into the system has come from the liberal side of the political spectrum—at least partially because the influx of super PAC money has disproportionately benefitted Republicans rather than Democrats. Senate Democrats have even gone as far as scheduling a vote for later on a bill that would reverse the Supreme Court’s decision.
However, Mayday is going to great lengths to ensure that its cause retains bipartisan appeal. ‟I think the rank and file conservatives that are the Republican base are just as fed up with the corruption in Washington [as Democrats are],” explained Brian Boyko, Mayday's chief technical officer, in the same Reddit AMA. ‟Even the Tea Party started as a reform-minded organization before the whole thing got co-opted by the far-right. And besides, it's not like the congressional Democrats are making reform a priority either....yet.”
Boyko noted that people who donate to Mayday are able to specify if they want their contributions to excursively go to Democrats, Republicans, or into a single bucket that supports candidates from both parties.
Photo by Themanwithoutapast/Wikimedia Commons