Effective election campaigns have always relied on the candidates’ ability to raise money. Even in the days before television, radio and the internet, it still took money to get the word out to the people in a far-flung land. However, today’s candidates are faced with raising larger and larger amounts of money with each new election that comes along. Individuals are the primary source of campaign funding at the federal level, with political action committees running a close second. Their donations are regulated donations and are referred to as “hard money. Organizations also contribute money to campaigns but often do so indirectly in ways that allow them to skirt regulations pertaining to campaign finance. This is referred to as “soft money. ” With election season upon us, there has been a lot of talk about campaign finance reform. There are those who feel that the current system lacks fairness because wealthy individuals and special interest groups wield far greater power, and have far more say about certain issues, than ordinary citizens who cannot afford to make large contributions to their candidate’s campaign.
One of the biggest hurdles to implementing campaign finance reform is the constitutional issue of free speech. Article I, section 4, and Article II, section 1, of the United States Constitution authorizes Congress to regulate federal elections. However, any regulations must conform to restraints imposed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. The courts have repeatedly held that, under the First Amendment, campaign contributions are protected as political free speech.
Opponents to campaign finance reform believe that reforms will prohibit ordinary citizens from exercising their right to political free speech by curtailing their ability to advocate for or against particular candidates. Should limits be placed on political spending? The need for large amounts of money to run a campaign has led to what appears to be a rude and crude race for the acquisition of large piles of cash, and there are those who would argue that money can never be separated from political influence. I agree that, deep down, there is something wrong with the way in which campaigns in the United States are financed.
There is little doubt that large corporations and/or special interest groups have a “quid pro quo” expectation attached to the outlay of large sums of money (an expectation of a direct exchange of campaign contributions for favorable government treatment). That being said, however, I also think an equal (perhaps greater) problem is the role the media plays in any election. Journalists have human biases and often times they allow them to show by promoting those candidates with whom they agree philosophically or, even worse, providing more coverage for those they know will produce higher ratings.
But assuming that campaign finance reform is the way to go, the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech means any changes will need to be considered constitutional by the United States Supreme Court. Yale Law School professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres proposed “a system of modified public financing coupled with an anonymous campaign contribution process” as outlined in their 2004 book entitled Voting with Dollars: A new paradigm for campaign finance.
This type of financing would involve two components: patriot dollars (federal funds) and secret donations. All voters would be given a $50 publicly-funded voucher (patriot dollars) to donate to the campaign(s) of their choice. Both types of donations would need to be made anonymously through the Federal Election Commission. This would place high, flexible limits on private contributions while also removing the possibility of quid pro quo donations. The book goes into further discussion about model legislation and how to legally achieve such a system.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines democracy as “government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives. ” The purpose of a campaign is to provide information to the people and to discuss candidates and their positions on important issues so individuals can make an informed choice as to who they believe would best represent their interests. The American citizenry has a constitutional right to participate in this process.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, it seems that nothing speaks louder than money. While the current system of campaign finance is not perfect and could certainly stand an overhaul, in a time when Americans face covert wiretapping by their own government and the Patriot Act granted access to something as private as our library records, we as citizens should be very concerned about any further attempts to stifle our rights, particularly our right to free speech. Where government and regulations are concerned, perhaps less really is more.