The Super PAC to End All Super PACs Gets Off to a Super Start

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This post first appeared at The Huffington Post.

Lawrence Lessig delivers a TED talk: "We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim"
Lawrence Lessig giving his TED talk, We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim.

On May 1, Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig launched what he calls a “super PAC to end all super PACs.” Lessig, one of a new breed of campaign finance reformers, wants to change the corrupted system by which politicians now raise money for their campaigns.

The irony is to get money out of politics, reformers must raise money of their own. On that measure, Lessig’s new organization has gotten off to a super start.

The super PAC, named Mayday PAC, relies on a two-tiered fundraising model to tap both a large pool of ordinary citizens and a smaller pool of deep-pocketed donors. Lessig announced that Mayday would crowdsource its fundraising: If $1 million was raised online by the end of May, the sum would be matched by those larger contributors. If Mayday missed its goal, all money would be returned to the donors.

To Lessig’s surprise — and despite the total meltdown of Mayday’s servers and a complete absence of promotional spending — the super PAC to end all super PACs reached its $1 million goal in half the allotted time.

“I don’t understand it,” Lessig told The Huffington Post. “I think it’s incredibly hopeful for the idea that we can recruit a very large number of people into this cause.”

How will Mayday seek to advance the cause? It has a plan, formulated with the help of Bill Burton, former head of the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action.

Mayday is trying to raise $12 million overall — $6 million in crowdsourced funds and $6 million in matching funds from pledged big donors — to target five congressional races in the 2014 midterm elections. The races haven’t been selected yet, but the super PAC’s message will focus entirely on the malign influence of money in politics.

To what extent that message will track the reform arguments voiced by Lessig in his 2011 book, Republic Lost, or his various TED talks will be up to the consultants, like Burton, hired to determine what resonates best with Americans, based on public opinion polls and other collected data. In fact, a major goal of the super PAC’s 2014 efforts is to collect information on what works and what doesn’t for a larger campaign in 2016.

“The objective of the interventions [in the 2014 election] will be both to teach us something and to teach the public something,” Lessig said. “So for us, we want cases that are hard cases, that really test our messaging, so that we could know what could possibly work. But for the public, we want cases where people were like, ‘Wow, that really was a fight about the corrupting influence of money,’ or whatever, and the person on the wrong side of that fight lost.”

But before they could start convincing the public or teaching themselves, Lessig and his super PAC, which lacks paid staff, had to survive the collapse of its public platform.

Within days of launching the campaign, the servers powering the super PAC’s website collapsed under the pressure of so many visitors. Since Lessig was not paying for any promotion, direct mail or telemarketing, the website was the lone point of entry to learn about and donate to the campaign.

Luckily for Lessig, programmers and coders in the Silicon Valley area had recently gotten together to provide volunteer services for campaign finance reform-oriented organizations. Team Democracy, founded by Sarah Bonk and Aaron Lifshin, had already held a “hackathon for democracy” to support another Lessig project, New Hampshire Rebellion, as well as the California Clean Money Campaign. When Mayday’s servers crashed, Lessig contacted Lifshin for help.

“I was lucky enough to be in a position to just drop everything and sit in front of a computer for about 15 hours and coordinate volunteers, as random people came in and said, ‘Hey, how can I help this? What can I do?'” Lifshin said.

The self-organizing team coordinated by Lifshin — those whom Lessig calls the “first responder geeks” — now provides the voluntary tech backbone for the super PAC.

“One of the important things here is to create the sense that people have got to pull together to do this,” Lessig said. “It’s not like we’re hiring an agency. Fortunately, we’ve been successful in doing this.”

The use of volunteers also helps Lessig limit overhead costs. He has promised those who give in the crowdsourced fundraising phase that their money will be used solely to promote the reform message. Payments to pollsters or other consultants will be made from the cash contributed by the big-dollar donors.

With that quick first $1 million, Lessig may have shown that campaign finance reform can have an immediate appeal, but he still has to prove that a bipartisan movement can be built. He has long argued that only cross-party efforts can succeed on this issue.

Support for campaign finance reform among congressional Republicans, however, is currently near zero percent. Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) is the only GOP co-sponsor of public financing legislation in the House, while the retiring Rep. Tom Petri (R-OH) has introduced his own bill related to reform.

“We are eager in our efforts to make it so it can be cross-partisan in that sense,” Lessig said.

The first group of Mayday’s big-dollar donors — those who pledged to match the first $1 million — will likely be made public next week, and they may highlight the less polarizing nature of campaign finance reform outside Washington. Lessig said these donors come from across the ideological spectrum and from various professions.

To unlock the remaining donors and their $5 million in pledged funds, the super PAC will launch its next round of crowdsourced fundraising at the end of May.

Lessig is well aware that initial enthusiasm can fade. He worries that super PAC fundraising in general will become normalized and ordinary people become marginalized if campaign finance reform does not happen soon.

“My view is we’ve got to do it now, it’s got to be big, it’s got to be powerfully motivated — so that’s what we’re trying to execute on,” Lessig said.

Paul Blumenthal
Paul Blumenthal is a reporter at The Huffington Post covering campaign finance and money in politics. He previously worked as the senior writer for The Sunlight Foundation.
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  • Anonymous

    Any system of funding short of tax funding will not make much dent in corrupt influence of wealthy corporate guys buying political decisions and having elected officials as their private servants. Let’s free public officials to serve all the Public. Let’s hold a national referendum on how to fund elections and how long should electioneering last.

  • Brigita Petrutis

    I like this, but how about a pledge that keeps enough Democrats pushing for campaign finance reform? Now that he is swimming in the shark tank, raising money easily, the concern of unequal representation may become murky water.

  • Anonymous

    We are bipartisan. We will support candidates regardless of their party affiliation as long as the are committed to campaign finance reform.
    With enough people involved, we will be the biggest super pac out there. instead of doubting the viability of this movement, join it!

  • Anonymous

    Great point Norman. That has to start somewhere, not with petitions, but the majority putting a few bucks where their mouth is. That’s exactly what we are doing in this movement. Join us and we can make it happen.

  • Anonymous

    I support most of what Mr. Moyers advocates.

  • Anonymous

    …so we can elect politicians on campaign finance reform – ideally public/tax-based funding on some kind of fair formula….

  • RevPhil Manke

    Retiring (R) rep Tom Petri is from WI, not OH. He has had a lock on the office for many years, and had become silently ineffectual with cronyism carying him along,from days when the Republican party meant something worthwhile. We greatly need a viable “Green Party” candidate to run for this office. Is Russ Feingold alive in WI? He chaired an Independent party awhile ago.

  • Anonymous

    Yes Yellowroz. We blew between $40 and $60 Billion (with B to fraud and waste just on aid to Iran and Afghanistan.
    Just a small effort to reduce this kind of waste provides more than enough tax dollars for funding election campaigns.
    As for funding a super pac to end all super pacs, we spend over $4 Billion (again with a B) on potato chips every year.
    If we each gave up 1bag a year, this pac would have over, (based on $3 per bag and 300,000,000 of us) $900 million dollars per YEAR! I lousy bag of potato chips each! Why can’t we do that? It beats waiting until we can’t take it any more and a violent revolution stars. Come on Yellowroz. Bring you bag of potato chips over to and join us!

  • Shannon Mahoney

    I really like the idea. I think it is worthy whether it works first time around or not. The fact that someone is actually doing something positive in this effort is just exciting. In this day and age everything has to be done in a big way in order to even engage people anymore. I support change and anyone that moves forward with out of the box ideas in an intelligent manner to effect positive change in our Country and In our world.
    Thank you for doing something.

  • nurse

    Cut the military budget and allocate that money for public electons.

  • Rebecca Tesich

    A crazy, exciting idea. I hope it works.

  • marcuscassius

    If we cut military spending by only half, we could pay for every retiree and get a nice secure retirement. We could pay for every education all the way through masters degrees, for free. We could repair every road and every bridge in the country. All of this would make the economy boom, benefiting everyone, especially the wealthy. We could wipe out poverty and still have enough to pay down the national debt by over $100 billion a year……AND STILL HAVE A BIGGER MILITARY BUDGET THAN THE NEXT 7 LARGEST COUNTRIES MILITARY’S ….COMBINED. That’s how much our politicians are wasting on arms we don’t want and the armies don’t want.

  • Anonymous

    Great idea – creating citizen super packs to stop big money from buying our government off.

  • Barry Stabile

    Wow! Twelve whole million $! That represents .00012% of the Koch Bros net worth.

  • Racer X

    This is the perfect place to start – crowd sourcing is a democratic concept. It is a way for the common person to buy influence in DC. The recent Princeton study from Gilens and Page has already shown that the people’s voice has been drowned out by Big Money in DC so this is the only way to for us to fight back. Ok perhaps $2M is not a lot of money in the grand scheme of political finance but it comes with a very large voting bloc and the beginning of a dedicated volunteer network. I hope this catches on!

  • Sue Em

    I am so glad it worked so far. I saw it on facebook and contributed. It makes me feel good to take part rather then doing nothing, wihsing I could do something.

  • Jeff Matey

    uh oh – you got me. all these little $5 , $10 donations though … ok i’m gonna have to think about it.

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  • SustainbleFuture

    Lessig claims 13,000 donors to the first $Million, if that’s true, that’s nearly $100 each! I gave $10.