TIME 2014 Election

Campaign Finance Reformer Launches Super PAC to End Super PACs

Academic and activist Lawrence Lessig says it’s time to “pay the ransom” to take American democracy back from the moneyed interests he says hold it hostage

If you can’t beat them, join them. Then take them down from the inside.

That’s the basic idea behind a super PAC launching Thursday that wants to destroy super PACs for good. The Mayday PAC, as it’s called, seeks to raise enough money to sway five House elections in 2014 and elect representatives who have committed to pressing for serious reform of the campaign finance system.

If that endeavor—a sort of test case—is successful, the PAC will then try to raise an enormous amount of money for the 2016 cycle—enough, PAC organizers hope, to buy Congress.

“Our democracy is held hostage by the funders of campaigns,” says Mayday PAC founder, Harvard law professor and political activist Lawrence Lessig, in a video accompanying Mayday PAC’s debut. “We’re going to pay the ransom to get it back.”

Mayday PAC’s fundraising will work like the crowdfunding site Kickstarter in that supporters can make pledges, but no money is collected unless the PAC meets its fundraising targets. The PAC hopes to raise $1 million by the end of May, which will be matched if the target is met, and $5 million by the end of June, which will also be matched. Mayday PAC hasn’t said who will be doing the matching.

Mayday PAC was already 8 percent of the way toward its goal by Thursday afternoon with more than $75,000 pledged and nearly 31 days left to reach its target.

To say Mayday PAC faces an uphill fight is an understatement. Proponents of serious campaign finance reform face strong opponents in both parties, and the Supreme Court and lower courts have issued rulings in recent years striking down or throwing into doubt a wide array of restrictions on political spending.

If the idea behind Mayday PAC sounds absurd, that’s by design. Cynicism and defeatism about government run so deep through American politics, Lessig believes, that the only way to “crack this cynicism” is with an idea so exceedingly ambitious—a “moonshoot,” he calls it—that people might be roused to get behind it.

“We must show Americans something unlike anything they’ve seen before,” Lessig writes.

Though Lessig’s means are ambitious indeed, his goals are simple. As he argued in a widely-shared TED Talk, much of the money spent on our elections comes from a minuscule slice of wealthy Americans. Just 196 people (that’s 0.000063 percent of the country) donated 80 percent of the total Super PAC money raised in 2012, according to Lessig. It’s a truism that money buys influence, and in order to turn things around, Lessig wants to get politicians to raise smaller amounts of money from a larger amount of people.

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