My writing sample is an essay I wrote for my GOVT-110 class on the need for reforms to the United States’ campaign finance system. I am very passionate about campaign finance reform and see it as a necessary step to expanding democracy.
Fixing our Campaign Finance System:
Frank Underwood, a power-hungry politician from the Netflix original hit show House of Cards, once remarked: “I’ve always said that power is more important than money. But when it comes to elections, money gives power… well, a run for its money.” Even though the character is fictional the quote rings true, especially in the United States’ current campaign finance system. The hallmark of any democracy is its ability to conduct free and fair elections, but due to the disastrous decision in Citizens-united v. FEC U.S. elections do not have any semblance of fairness. Corporations and the ultra-wealthy can effectively donate unlimited amounts of money to candidates and are protected, by anonymity, from being held responsible to the public. In the 2020 presidential elections, so far according to the FEC, 2150 super PACs have spent a combined $1,129,538,122 on electioneering activities such as buying attack ads. It may just seem to be a large amount of money, elections are expensive, right? While it’s true that elections are expensive, the main problem is that 45% of where that money has come from is undisclosed, for a myriad of reasons which will be analyzed later in this paper. Another problem is this large amount of money used by these super PACs came from only about 4,000 people and a combination of big businesses from across the country, divided up this would mean that each donor gave about $300,000 to these super PACs, not even including the various other routes that they can donate by. Compare this amount of money to how much money has been donated by small donors -Americans who contribute $200 or less per quarter- to the two major presidential candidates, which is only $455,657,755, a third of what super PACs have raised from only 4000 people. Money equals votes in American elections; TV advertisements, billboards, yard signs, etc. all cost money and it has a heavy influence on who people vote for. So this discrepancy in where campaigns’ money comes from shows how candidates have more concern and stand to gain more from courting wealthy individuals and businesses to donate to their campaigns. There is also the fact that the longer a politician stays in office the more money they accumulate through super PACs from these wealthy businesses and individuals and therefore do not have to rely on fundraising events with constituents to run their reelection campaigns, making our leaders disconnected from the public which they are meant to be a servant to. What is the solution to this seemingly corrupt system you might ask? Well, this first step is a big one, but the most important: a constitutional amendment that will reverse the decision in Citizens United. Second: public funding of campaigns at the federal level and incentivize states to create their own systems. There is already a system with the workings of this under the presidential public funding program that partially funds presidential primaries and general elections, but is extremely limited in the funds it has. Third: the FEC must be given more regulatory and oversight powers when it comes to elections. This would include the ability to force all PACs to disclose where funding comes from, the ability to audit PACs, and other such powers. Lastly, many other minor changes need to be made such as preventing candidates from using personal wealth to finance their campaigns, close loopholes that are used to bypass existing campaign finance laws such as 501(c)(4) organizations, etc.
The main problem with campaign finance is that the supreme court has ruled financial donations to political campaigns and committees are protected by the first amendment. Corporations were given equal rights to people, which meant that limitations on corporations’ ability to make political donations are the same as denying the rights of an American citizen. Of course, the court acknowledged that limitations and regulation are necessary for campaign finance, but they nullified an FEC law that prevented corporations from independent expenditures during elections, because, as the court’s opinion puts it, “prohibition on corporate independent expenditures is thus a ban on speech. As a “restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign,” that statute “necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached”(Supreme Court Of The United States 2010). The reason the court decided that PACs are okay to be regulated, but restrictions on super PACs are suppression of free speech is because of how the two operate. PACs have limits on where they receive donations from, how much they can receive, and who they can donate to because PACs coordinate how they spend that money with a candidate or political party. Super PACs can not coordinate how they spend money with candidates or parties, therefore they can receive unlimited donations, do not have to disclose where certain donations come from, but can not donate to campaigns or parties. In theory, super PACs seem fine, but in reality, they coordinate spending all the time with candidates and parties because there is no easy way to define when expenditure is independent of politics. If the head of a super PAC talks to the head of a candidate’s campaign committee on where to target a new wave of ads, that would be illegal. But if the spouse of the super PAC leader talked to the spouse of the chair of the campaign committee about where a new wave of ads would be best, that would be considered legal, even if the spouses relayed the information back. This use of third-party proxies that are theoretically independent of the process as a way to exchange information is not only legal but impossible for the FEC to regulate and prosecute, meaning that, no, super PAC spending is not independent, it’s quite the opposite. This leads to the other problem of super PACs, dark money, as it’s come to be known. Super PACs are required to disclose some donors such as corporations, individuals, etc., but the problem starts with 501(c) organizations. 501(c) are types of nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations under the Internal Revenue Code of the IRS, which does not require them to have their donations disclosed to the FEC. One of the biggest problems with nondisclosure is that citizens who are barraged with political messages may not be able to consider the credibility and possible motives of the wealthy corporate or individual funders behind those messages. There are many aspects of campaign finance that need to be solved: unlimited spending, an unfair system benefiting the wealthy, dark money, etc. the solutions are simple and the public is ready for change.
The first hurdle to cross is reversing the dangerous precedent of Citizens United V. FEC. Overturning Citizens United will help create a fairer election system by reestablishing federal laws from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act(BCRA) which stops corporations and unions from making any political donations. As mentioned above Super PAC spending from corporations, unions, and individuals heavily incentivize candidates to prioritize fundraising from big donors instead of the general public. The major problem is not the solution itself, but the politics surrounding it. To reverse the decision of Citizens United there are effectively only two options: the Supreme Court overturned its decision, which is extremely unlikely due to the conservative majority, or a constitutional amendment. So from the two options, the constitutional amendment seems to be the most plausible in the short term. A constitutional amendment needs a two-thirds vote from both the House of Representatives and Senate, and three-fourths of the state legislatures’ approval. While that may seem daunting there is overwhelming public support for it. A Pew Research center poll from 2018 found that “77% of Americans believe there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and groups can spend in elections,” as well as “66% said that new laws could be written that would be effective in reducing the role of money in politics.” So with such overwhelming support what’s the challenge? Well in recent years corporations have expanded their lobbying efforts and will not appreciate Congress stripping them of their ability to influence politics. There are also politicians, such as Ted Cruz, who receive millions in contributions from the oil industry, who prefer to keep the system as it is now to protect themselves from losing their jobs. Well, what legislation has been passed by politicians who do want to see reform? In 2019 H.R. 1 For the People Act, introduced by Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, was a sweeping election reform focused on election security and campaign finance reform. It includes provisions that would create a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United and strengthening laws originally made in the BCRA. The bill passed along partisan lines when brought to a vote, 234-193, but it shows promise, 56 votes would need to be flipped to achieve a two-thirds vote margin for a constitutional amendment. The real trouble comes in the Senate where Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell put the bill on the Senate’s legislative calendar, effectively killing it. Even if the legislation were to reach the floor the 47 democrats would need an additional 19 votes to pass an amendment, a nearly impossible task considering the obscurity of campaign finance as an issue on the national level. Then finally assuming it passes the House and Senate it would need to be approved by three-fourths of the state legislatures, since there haven’t been any amendments sent to the states on campaign finance we have to assume they will vote along party lines. Currently, 19 states have Democrat control of their legislatures, 30 controlled by Republicans, and Minnesota which is split. Since Democrats overwhelmingly support serious campaign finance reform it is safe to assume the 19 Democratic states would approve the amendment proposed by H.R. 1. This means that to get to the magic number of 38 state legislatures 19 will have to vote against their party. This may seem impossible, but without overturning the case that started this problem there can be little effective reform.
The other set of reforms that must be passed into law to make a fairer campaign finance system for elections include public funding and greater regulatory as well as enforcement power for the FEC. As mentioned previously politicians focused on re-election or election to a higher office focus the majority of their energy towards securing donors with deep pockets. This means that the electorate is often ignored. Public funding would help refocus attention to the public. The system wouldn’t 100% finance a candidate’s campaign, Trump or Biden would then just spend billions of taxpayer dollars. The reform would be similar to the system in New York City where when someone makes a small donation ($50 – $200) the government matches it, for example, if a person donates $50 to a campaign the government would then donate an additional $350 to match the original donation. The implementation of this system would make it much more beneficial for candidates to garner large amounts of small donors. The second reform would have to be to the Federal Election Commission(FEC). The FEC is tasked with enforcing federal campaign finance law, but it has run into problems with its structure. Currently, six commissioners run the FEC, it is split evenly among partisan lines. With increasing polarization, it has become impossible for the FEC to create new regulations or enforce current ones because every vote is a tie at 3-3. Adding an additional commissioner that is extremely bipartisan would help break deadlocks and a more efficient FEC. There is also the added problem of the powers the FEC already has delegated to it. Currently under campaign finance law certain organizations, such as the 501(c)(4)’ mentioned earlier, and PACs don’t have to report where donations come from or where they go to. Therefore to curb this problem and increase transparency between campaigns and the public the FEC should be given the ability to audit, and publish the finding, of all types of PACs, campaigns, and any organization that makes political donations whether it be business or nonprofit, but only for political donations and nothing outside of the purview of campaign finance law. These reforms, while extremely important, are politically unpopular among Republican congresspersons and would most likely not get any votes from the GOP. This means, similarly to the constitutional amendment mentioned earlier, their fate rests upon the ability of politicians to cross the aisle and work together.
Demos, the root word for democracy, effectively means “the people.” Democracy is for the people and the most important part of a functioning democracy is its ability to conduct free and fair elections. However, in the United States, our elections are battles between rich business persons with little concern for the people. Green is drowning out the red, white, and blue and so reform of our campaign finance system is a necessity to save our democratic process. Reversing Citizens United would be the biggest step, equalizing the playing field makes all of our voices heard. Then implementing reforms to publicly fund campaigns and have a stronger FEC to enforce laws and regulations to ensure transparency. Even though there is massive support from the public the vices of partisanship are making meaningful reform impossible to accomplish. But even though it seems difficult to achieve change there is public support and that makes all the difference.