“There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” – Senator Mark Hanna, 1903
The solution to this problem is a system called clean elections, which is used in Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut. It is sometimes referred to as publicly funded campaigns. Under this system, if a candidate gets enough base support to show that he is a viable candidate (typically a certain number of small contributions, generally around $5), the state will fund his campaign. It is a voluntary system; candidates may choose not to run clean if they don’t want to take the state’s money (for example, if they are rich and would not need it). If another candidate in the race is not running clean, and outspends the candidate that is, the state will match whatever money the other person is spending. It would be cheaper for the state to put a cap on how much candidates can spend in an election, but the Supreme Court ruled that that would be unconstitutional in the 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo. This is the famous case where the court held that money = speech (more on that later).
In addition to reducing the potential for corruption (as well as the appearance of corruption), clean elections allow politicians to focus more on their job. Often, politicians spend much of their time making phone calls and attending fundraisers, as they know that how much money they raise is critical to their reelection prospects. If a politician is able to use clean elections money instead of spending all of his time fundraising, he can spend more time on his job, and be more effective at it (we could certainly use more of that).
Another benefit of the system is that it allows more candidates to run that would not have had the money or connections to run otherwise, bringing fresh ideas into politics. In the last congress, 54 of 100 Senators were millionaires. It is unlikely that millionaires are as able to understand the problems of middle class and lower class people as non-millionaires. In Maine, a waitress making half the minimum wage plus tips was able to win a seat using clean elections money. Congress could use a few more people like that, that understand how much of the country actually lives.
Critics of clean elections systems say that they are a waste of taxpayer money, that there is no proof that politicians favor those who donate to their campaigns. While it is often difficult to prove that campaign contributions influence individual politicians (what politician would readily admit this?), it is clear that politicians who vote for certain bills typically get far more money from the bill’s lobbyists than politicians that vote against them (the book Is That a Politician in Your Pocket lays out this trend in great detail). Furthermore, it is doubtful that the corporations that give to both sides in a political race do so in the spirit of debate; they want to make sure they have the ear of whoever wins.
Of course, enacting a clean elections system would only begin to address the issue of money in politics. Much of the money in campaigns comes from outside groups that spend on election advertising outside of individual candidates’ campaigns. This allows them to skirt many of the donation limits placed on donors to candidates. Outside groups became even more active in the 2010 election in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, where the court held that corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising, which the court said was their 1st Amendment right.
The chief hurdle to limiting the influence of outside groups in campaigns is the Supreme Court’s holding that money = speech under the 1st Amendment. It is a tough question that could certainly be argued either way. On the one hand, the more money a candidate has, the more he is able to get his message out there. On the other hand, buying an advertisement is a purchase, which is not necessarily an act of speech. We do not have the right in this country to purchase whatever we want (meth, rocket launchers, etc.). Even if buying ads was speech, not all speech is protected by the first amendment. A person cannot yell “fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. If advertisements were speech, advertisers are still forbidden by law from putting certain content in their ads, such content that is deceptive or untruthful. The point is, we do have limits on speech in this country when it is deemed to be in the public interest. Giving a rich man far more “speech” than a poor man is certainly not in the public interest. In this country, you have a right to hold any opinion you choose, but that ought not give you that right to bombard the poor voters of this country with attack ads.
The Supreme Court needs to get over its insistence on letting individuals, corporations, unions, and non-profits spend unlimited amounts of money on outside groups, and we need to put strict limits on how much people and organizations can spend on outside groups. In lieu of this, matching funds for candidates who have less outside groups spending money for them would also be a perfectly reasonable solution. Either way, elections in this country ought to be decided by which candidate has the better ideas, not by which one has the most money behind him.