The amazing thing about the current campaign finance laws is exactly no one is happy with them. The Left thinks the current situation offers the wealthy too much power, and the Right thinks this climate awkwardly restricts free speech.
We’ve always debated free speech versus political corruption. Recently, we had the 2002 McCain-Feingold law and the 2010 Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision to decide where free speech ends and purchasing elections begins.
If you’ve been watching the 2012 presidential election, you know non-candidate controlled SuperPACs have spent millions in support of various candidates and causes on the backs of unrestricted donations.
The current situation is a farce. A private citizen can give up to $2,500 to Mitt Romney’s campaign or an infinite amount to a group that supports Romney but doesn’t officially represent him.
That group can then run ads without any accountability because they aren’t the ones running in the election, so you can’t simply vote against them if you’re upset with their tactics. Confused?
You should be.
Republicans would like to change the law so anyone and everyone can give unlimited amounts directly to candidates so they can spend the money the way they would like to. To offer accountability, they suggest all of these donations should be open to the public. Democrats worry that might put too much money into politics, leaving the power in the hands of the wealthy.
The Democrats favor publically financed campaigns or some sort of cap on election spending. It eliminates the concerns about corruption, but cripples free speech, which worries Republicans.
In other words, the Republicans want more free speech and the Democrats don’t want the money to equal power.
How do we solve this problem? Let’s consider a few things using presidential campaigns as an example, but these could apply to all kinds of elections.
The first part is to only regulate campaign spending on television. No one is worried Mitt Romney’s website is more expensive than Rick Santorum’s; they’re worried he can outspend him on TV.
Look at the Iowa Caucus. Santorum spent way less in the state, but beat Romney by a handful of votes, proving that when retail politics is important, a candidate with less money can do as well. Mike Huckabee did the same thing in 2008.
Turn to Florida and see Romney’s ad spending on television was decisive in getting his message out.
Is anyone really worried someone can buy an election anywhere but on television? No, so let’s just address that.
The best idea I’ve heard on the matter calls for a time limit on political advertising. In other words, a candidate can only advertise on television in a state ten days before a primary and thirty days before a general election.
It would still give a free speech advantage to a candidate that can spend more, but it gives the poorer candidate an opportunity to concentrate their resources and turn it into a fairer fight.
But let’s turn to the real concern, that money buys influence with a politician once they’re in office.
A full donor list should be mandatory online. If you can see in plain English that a Solar Company gave President Obama $50,000 over three years, you can decide if you trust him to handle their relationship with the government appropriately.
It seems if that happened, it would discourage candidates from accepting big donations because it would look like they are beholden to certain people, and that image would not help them acquire votes.
Showing the world how you make your money would probably scare off the money. If you limit when you can spend it on television, it gives the little guys a better chance without jumping all over free speech.
It’s not a perfect fix, but it does make it less likely that money will control electoral outcomes while not restricting free speech too heavily.
Just remember politics and money have always been tied together and separating them is a task far more complicated than going camping in Zuccotti Park.