“I don’t do politics.” “Nothing I say or do makes a difference anyway.” “I vote. Isn’t that enough?”
We’ve all heard these sentiments — and maybe even expressed them ourselves. It’s easy to become cynical or apathetic about politics, but can we really afford this kind of thinking when we live in a representative democracy? Isn’t that abdicating our responsibility as citizens? After all, it was “We, the People” who ordained and established our constitutional government, the power of which was and is derived from the consent of the governed. Our elected leaders are accountable to us.
Why, then, do so many of us feel powerless? And how do we reclaim our rightful influence? The obvious answer is that we must actively engage with democracy and take seriously our civic responsibility by voting, volunteering, writing to our members of Congress, serving as delegates, maybe even running for public office.
But may I suggest another, less evident way of exercising our civic duty and claiming our power as citizens? Donating to the campaign of a candidate you respect and want to represent you. Since we live in a constitutional republic, it is incumbent upon us to do everything in our power to make sure that those we elect to represent us, and our values actually do.
We are not in the habit of thinking about donating to campaigns as a civic duty, but perhaps it is. As the authors of this article published last year in The Social Science Journal point out, “campaigns in the U.S. are largely privately funded and need money to inform and educate voters.” Therefore, “campaign donations matter not just for campaign managers and candidates but also for democracy.”
Surprisingly, according to surveys conducted by American National Election Studies (ANES) and cited by the PEW Research Center, only about 12% of Americans donated to a political campaign in 2016, and that was up from only 6% in 1992.
Like it or not, money matters in campaigns. Fortunately, the Federal Election Campaign Act limits the amount that any individual can contribute to a campaign to $2,900 per election phase (caucus/convention, primary election, general election). Not all of us can donate that much, but it does level the playing field a bit. You don’t have to be wealthy to contribute to a campaign. Even modest donations make a difference. And the number of unique donors often matters as much or more as total donations.
Every quarter, candidates are required to file a detailed financial report with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). These reports are public, and candidates, the press, and others often use these numbers (again, not just total contributions, but also number of donors) to make claims about the relative health of a campaign. Whether or not a candidate has sufficient donations can make or break a campaign.
Now to bring this closer to home. Here in Utah, many are eager to see Sen. Mike Lee defeated in 2022. Lee has been an outspoken advocate of term limits and even campaigned in 2010 on the promise that he would pass legislation to limit House members to three two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms. Indeed, along with a number of his colleagues, he even signed a pledge in 2017 to do so. And yet, he has announced that he himself will be running for a third term.
Lee, who has always positioned himself as a great defender of the Constitution, has, unfortunately, shown himself over the past few years to be a political opportunist, willing to overlook even the most blatant attacks on the Constitution if it somehow benefits him and his partisan agenda and aspirations.
It’s always a formidable task to unseat an incumbent, but it can be done. But not without a strong challenger, a well-organized campaign, and, yes, money.
Fortunately, there are at least three very viable candidates challenging Lee in 2022 — two Republicans (Becky Edwards, former Utah state legislator, and Ally Isom, former staffer for Gov. Gary Herbert) and an independent (Evan McMullin, former presidential candidate). All three seem to have well-organized campaigns. But all three will need money from donors, and a lot of it.
So, if you are someone who really cares about unseating Lee and sending someone to Washington who will better represent Utah and be more accessible, more willing to work across the aisle, more in touch with constituents, more principled, then, please, donate whatever you can to one or more of his challengers. Whether it’s $5, $100, or $2,900, it all counts.
I happen to believe that it’s high time for Utah to elect a female senator. The research clearly shows that better decisions are made and better policies implemented when women are at the table. Both Becky Edwards and Ally Isom are highly qualified candidates who would make exceptional senators. That’s why, early on, I donated equal amounts to both their campaigns.
It’s clear, though, that they can’t both stay in the race and split the challenger vote if they hope to defeat Lee in the primary. The quickest way to narrow the field and improve the odds of successfully unseating Lee is for one of the primary challengers to pull way ahead of the other in terms of donations in this next quarter. If, like me, you are a moderate who believes that a moderate senator with a proven track record as a unifier would best represent the people, interests and values of Utah, or if you are a Democrat who is realistic enough to acknowledge that a Democrat is not likely to win in Utah (at least not in 2022), then I invite you to join me in supporting Becky Edwards.
And not just in word. Pull out your wallet and donate to her campaign. It’s not enough just to declare support for a candidate on social media or stick a sign in your lawn (though those things are important too!). We must be willing to put our money where our mouth is. That is how we claim our power as citizens in this government of, by, and for the people.
Sharlee Mullins Glenn founded Mormon Women for Ethical Government (MWEG) in January 2017 and served as its executive director until 2019. She currently sits on the external advisory board of Brigham Young University’s Office of Civic Engagement and does volunteer work for Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS). The thoughts she expresses here are her own and not those of MWEG, BYU, or IRIS--nonpartisan organizations that do not endorse political candidates or parties.