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Politics / Fiscal Issues

An Argument for Campaign Finance Reform

by Justin Burke | October 27 2014

With the election less than two weeks away it appears to be an appropriate time to discuss the issue of money in politics, and the outrageous amounts of money being spent on political campaigns.

Campaign finance reform has been an issue that candidates are not willing to discuss or include in their platforms, though there are a few exceptions. A recent article in the New York Times illuminated the late surge of money from Republican Super PACs into key congressional races. With this flood of money Republicans now hold a $7 million advantage over their Democratic counterparts. This money will likely decide these extremely close, and key, races that could tip the balance of power in Congress. Does anyone else see a problem with this? An election being decided by money – not the issues involved, not the merit of the candidates – but who can outspend the other.

The issue is money and its influence on politics, elections, and free speech.

Since the Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision in 2010 the amount of money spent during the last two election cycles has been nothing short of insanity, on both sides of the aisle. With that decision, the Supreme Court upheld the notion of corporate personhood and decided that money was equal to speech. In the 2012 presidential election President Obama spent $1.123 billion, while rival Mitt Romney spent $1.019 billion, the most expensive election in history. Super PACs, obtaining most of their money from corporations and multimillion-dollar donors, funneled a majority of the money to candidates. The pervasive nature of unlimited donations and expenditures in any given election has undermined our democratic process and given undue power to the wealthy and corporations.

Citizen’s United takes the concept of “one person, one vote” and throws it out the window. Research done by U.S. PIRG and Demos shows that very large donors have approximately 23,000 times more influence compared to the average small donor. In other words, to match the $285.2 million accumulated from ~1.5 million small donors ($200 or fewer) by both Presidential candidates in 2012, it would only take 61 large donors.

No, you did not read that number wrong.

The ability to buy elections and/or heavily influence decisions made in Washington or at the state level to further special interests disempowers the average citizen. As the saying goes, the rich get richer, or should I say the super-rich get richer. The top one percent now account for more than 20 percent of the nations earnings, up from about 8 percent in 1981. In addition it makes us, the people, lose faith in our government and our ability to change things without the backing of money.

One could argue that in the end it all equals out and both sides end up spending approximately the same sum of money, however, that is not the crux of the problem. Essentially whoever gets elected owes these large donors and corporations’ favors for their contributions. They make decisions based on what is best for that donor instead what is best for their district and constituents – corroding the very purpose of holding an election in the first place. Another problem is that it forces candidates to focus on fundraising instead of interacting with voters and discussing solutions to key issues. Beyond this, elected officials begin fundraising for the next election shortly after they are elected. This distracts them from doing their job.

There are several solutions to this overarching problem of unlimited money in politics. The easiest and most obtainable being a reversal of Citizen’s United, yet this solution does not solve the underlying issue of wealthy individuals controlling candidates due to their larger (and necessary within this system) donations. It still forces candidates to focus on fundraising in order to run a successful campaign, instead of focusing on the issues and constituent needs.

A reform that would truly grant the ordinary citizen an equal voice and some tangible measure of influence – sources of power within a democratic structure – could be achieved by implementing a system of public financing for campaigns, alongside expenditure limits. This ensures a level playing field for all candidates. Furthermore, public financing does a number of things to strengthen the democratic process according to the Center for Governmental Studies:

1)   It allows candidates to focus on the issues instead of fundraising (as discussed above)

2)   Eliminates the undue influence that special interests and wealthy individuals have over candidates, thereby reducing or eliminating corruption

3)   Gives less fortunate individuals a much better opportunity to run for office, along with women, minorities, and non-incumbent candidates

4)   Increases opportunities for voters to become more engaged in the political process

While there are valid arguments against the adoption of public financing, such as costs to citizens, it is viable and reasonable solution to the undue influence of the almighty dollar on the democratic process.

Campaign finance reform is a slow process, and not an easy undertaking, but it is vital if ordinary citizens want to regain political power. While the merits and consequences of a solution like public financing of campaigns can be debated, I know I am not alone in thinking that money is a problem in politics. In fact, a poll conducted earlier this year by the Global Strategy Group found that around 90 percent of American’s believe that it is important to “reduce the influence of money in politics.” This is not an issue of liberal vs. conservative, it is an issue of whether or not we as the American people want to continue to live in a country with a government run by and for corporations and wealthy individuals, or a government for the average citizen.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

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