AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It used to be that no one outside of Washington discussed campaign finance much. Now the topic can bring people out on the streets.
Spurred by grassroots activists, both Democratic presidential candidates say they want to give small donors more of a say in politics. And this week, as NPR's Peter Overby reports, protesters are marching from Philadelphia to Capitol Hill.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Show me what democracy looks like.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: This is what democracy looks like.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The protest is called Democracy Spring. The march began Saturday in Philadelphia, activists walking past Independence Hall in a light rain.
MIRIAM KASHIA: I came on the train - two days. Slept in the train station last night (laughter).
OVERBY: Miriam Kashia is from North Liberty, Iowa. She calls herself a climate action warrior. She said political money's influence is blocking action on the climate.
KASHIA: I'm retired, but I - it's a full-time job for me, being an activist.
OVERBY: Linda Battista of Philadelphia said the Wall Street bailout is what turned her attention to political money.
LINDA BATTISTA: The bailout was the straw that broke the camel's back. Billions of dollars that wealthy people are just sitting on while cuts are being made to schools. Everybody else is dealing with austerity...
OVERBY: ...In other words, the issue of political money didn't get the marching. Its impact, or perceived impact, did. Before the march, about 200 people rallied in the rain. Organizer Kai Newkirk told them members of Congress can't tackle any of the big issues until they stop taking money that's contributed to protect the status quo.
KAI NEWKIRK: It's not every day that people proclaim and promise that they're going to sit in and non-violently, peacefully occupy the seat of their government.
OVERBY: Congress regards campaign finance as an issue best handled by a few experts so it can be ignored by everybody else. But lawmakers may have missed a change in public opinion. Some polls show people agreeing with the system's critics, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, here campaigning in Wisconsin.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BERNIE SANDERS: What this campaign is about is talking about a corrupt campaign finance system.
OVERBY: Lonna Atkeson is director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico.
LONNA ATKESON: You have a most important problem question where campaign finance gets really low, single-digit scores. And then you might have well, what's wrong with elections? What's wrong with election campaigns? And then you might go, oh, well, all the money in it.
OVERBY: By now, Atkeson said -
ATKESON: This is not an issue that's going to go away because it's attacking people at all of their levels of government. It's becoming a part of the national dialogue.
OVERBY: Another professor, Larry Lessig of Harvard Law, is the visionary of the new, expanded reform movement. He even tried running for president on the issue last year. At the march, he said the goal is not to undo the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that helped big donors. It's to offer taxpayer-funded support for small donors, the system backed by both Clinton and Sanders.
LARRY LESSIG: That is the single most important change that could happen. And in, you know, 10 years it's gone from being impossible to imagine to being, you know, conventional for both of them.
OVERBY: Hollywood star Gaby Hoffman gave her short speech in the rain. She connected it to the movement's goal.
GABY HOFFMAN: It's incredibly difficult, actually, and I think that this little bit of gray sky and rain is here to remind us that it's not going to be easy.
OVERBY: Democracy Spring activists are due to reach Washington this weekend and start their sit-ins next week. After that, they'll be joined by another wave of activists for more days of demonstrations and possibly more arrests. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.