Let the People Decide – The Hopeful Case for a Campaign Finance Revolution
Posted on 14th March 2023 at 00:39
By Sebastian Grace
Few public officials were more devoted to the cause of getting money out of politics than the late John McCain. He would be saddened but not surprised to see that the current situation has changed little since his declaration that “campaign finance reform is dead” after the Supreme Court removed nearly all restrictions on political spending in its infamous Citizens United v. FEC decision of 2010.
The time has come to resurrect it. Campaign spending has exploded since McCain’s declaration. Shadowy groups known as “Super PACs” and the country’s wealthiest contribute enormous amounts of money to influence elections. The 2022 midterms were the most expensive in history. OpenSecrets, an organization that keeps track of campaign spending, estimated that the total cost of state and federal midterm elections exceeded $16.7 billion, $6.5 billion more than 2010 when adjusted for inflation.
Unfortunately, the reality is that any fresh federal attempt would be dead on arrival, as McCain proclaimed. The Supreme Court agrees with opponents of campaign finance reform who argue any restriction on spending is a restriction on free speech. In Citizens United vs the FEC, the Court ruled that corporations and unions cannot constitutionally be prohibited from promoting the election of one candidate over another. The Court’s current conservative iteration would doubtless agree. But state level policy changes would still make valuable contributions. We should look to the 50 local authorities who run our elections to build support for change at the grassroots. Democrats should set an example and start with the Senate primary race in California.
Proposed solutions exist and are worth considering. Take, for example, a plan to establish a system of modified public financing coupled with an anonymous campaign contribution process described by Yale Law School professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres in their 2002 book “Voting with Dollars: A New Paradigm for Campaign Finance.” All voters would be given a $50 publicly funded voucher to donate to federal political campaigns. This system would pool voter money and force candidates to address issues of importance to a broad spectrum of constituents, a sort of citizen’s agenda. In 2015, Seattle voters approved a “Democracy Vouchers Program,” which gave city residents four $25 vouchers to donate to participating candidates as a means to diversify the donor pool, help more candidates run for office, and boost political engagement.
Other smaller fixes would make a noticeable and valuable difference as well, such as expediting filing requirements and availability and encouraging small dollar fundraising with equal matching public expenditure or private tax rebate, engaging individual donors in the political process and incentivizing them to participate.
This is not a new issue. In 1896, William McKinley received more than $16 million in contributions for his presidential campaign, worth approximately $600 million today, and was unsurprisingly plagued with accusations of bribery and unethical behavior. His chief fundraiser, Mark Hanna, notoriously quipped, "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can't remember what the second one is." Congress has acted numerous times with a conveniently light touch on campaign finance reform throughout history. It’s time to throw the book at this once and for all.
There are bountiful reasons for reform. It is not difficult to see how the democratic principle of one person, one vote is corrupted by those with the deepest pockets. Campaign finance reform is necessary because it addresses the unequal distribution of political influence. By regulating spending to level the playing field, we would be encouraging more diverse candidates to run for public office, preventing them from being priced out, and encouraging transparency in the people’s houses up and down the country. Some 77% of the public say “there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on political campaigns,” according to a 2018 Pew Research Center poll.
Despite what the Supreme Court may believe, money is not speech, and when wealthy individuals and corporations are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, it drowns out the voices of ordinary citizens. The relationship between free speech and democracy is not a zero-sum game. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his partial dissent, “The distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office.” He added: “Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.”
Some who presumably support the principle of campaign finance reform, like President Obama’s election guru David Axelrod, argue the debate is insider baseball and not a priority. This is tired, establishment rubbish. If we can’t put the proper people in the room, what hope is there for getting the big calls right on the “more important” things such as climate policy? As Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, used to say, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
A campaign finance revolution is more important than ever. Trust in our institutions and politicians is at an all-time low, and the health of our democracy is at stake. In April 2022 alone, Fortune 500 companies gave more than $1.4 million to members of Congress who voted not to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election, according to an analysis by the transparency group Accountable.US.
Reform would help to restore dignity and reduce the debilitating divisiveness that plagues our political ecosystem. There’s no time like the present.
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