Money and Elections: Can People Beat Dollars?

Stephen H. Unger
November 3, 2012

Money has been playing an increasingly dominant role in American elections. It appears that nobody can seriously run for high office without access to huge sums of money needed to purchase significant amounts of mass media exposure. Supreme Court decisions over the past several years have nullified efforts to limit the extent to which corporations can influence elections via large expenditures directed toward promoting the views of candidates they favor. The ACLU, principal defender of First Amendment rights of free expression, is divided with regard to what can and should be done.

The problem can be partitioned into two parts: supplying public money to fund bona fide candidates, and limiting contributions and expenditures. These have been referred to, respectably, as putting a floor under minimal campaign funding, and putting a ceiling over campaign contributions. Let's see what these entail, and then consider how it might be possible to win elections without spending huge amounts of money.

Restricting Money

I would like to see a law with something like the following provisions:

  • Only individual adult citizens can make campaign contributions. (No corporations or other organizations can contribute.)
  • Total contributions in a year from any individual are limited to $400, no more than $100 to any one candidate.
  • A candidate can spend no more than $20,000 of his or her own funds in any one year.

    Altho it doesn't seem very drastic, the chances of getting such a law passed are minuscule, and, if passed, it would not survive court challenges. But, even if enacted and enforced, while it would be helpful, it would by no means solve the problem of excessive political influence exercised by the wealthy.

    One basic problem is that a substantial amount of electioneering can be, and is, carried out by people and organizations with no formal connections with candidates. For example, a TV commentator might consistently support a candidate, a newspaper might attack a candidate in an editorial and/or publish news or investigatory articles heavily biased toward, or even openly supporting, one candidate.

    The courts have ruled that no legal limits can be placed on the amount of money that an individual can spend on ads for candidates, provided that this is done independently of the official campaign organizations of the candidates. So wealthy people (or corporations or unions) can, and do, spend millions of dollars to promote candidates they favor.

    Another funding source is the candidate. E.g., New York mayor Bloomberg spent over $100 million to finance his own reelection [Kugler]. This was not a big expense for a man whose wealth is estimated at over $17 billion. His opponent's campaign was conventionally funded at less than one tenth of what Bloomberg spent. (This would be addressed by the third point of my proposal.)

    Quite apart from the activities of the official campaign organizations of candidates, individuals, and other organizations of various kinds can independently campaign for candidates. They can buy ads in print or broadcast media, print and distribute leaflets, hire people to make phone calls, or do any of the other things that campaign organizations can do. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision threw out a law to prohibit unions or corporations, including non-profits, from electioneering for named candidates during the period 30/60 days prior to primary/general elections [Glasser].

    So, barring a major turn-around by the Supreme Court, or a constitutional amendment, there is no way to prevent corporations and wealthy individuals from spending virtually unlimited amounts of money to help elect candidates they favor and to defeat those they oppose. The likelihood of getting the necessary 3/4 of all the state legislatures to agree on a constitutional amendment to address this problem is minuscule. (Furthermore, I am concerned about the idea of setting a precedent for tampering with the First Amendment.) In effect, no real ceiling can be placed on money spent to influence election outcomes.

    Since the mass media are under the control of big corporations and wealthy individuals, they are far from being unbiased in their commentary and news coverage related to elections. Banning newspaper articles, or TV commentator segments supporting a candidate in the period just prior to elections would obviously violate the very essence of the First Amendment freedom of the press provision.

    The bottom line here is that restrictions on campaign funding can have only a minimal effect on the use of money to influence election outcomes. The fundamental problem is the enormous inequality in wealth and income, which enables super-rich people to exert political power in countless ways [Unger].

    Public Funding of Election Campaigns

    The idea of providing public funds for campaign expenditures has been implemented to a limited extent, both at the presidential [FEC] and local levels. For presidential elections, major party candidates can choose to be financed publicly, but Obama rejected this option in 2008, because he was able to raise a lot more money directly, and Romney joined in this rejection for the 2012 election.

    Several states, such as Arizona, New Mexico, Maine, and Connecticut, have "Clean Election" laws whereby candidates for state offices can, after qualifying by obtaining a modest number of small donations, choose to accept state funding, but no more private donations. Provision was made for giving candidates added funds, up to some limit , if their opponents were outspending them by substantial amounts. But this provision was ruled out by the Supreme Court as an infringement on the rights of such opponents. Apparently, the court believes that the right to outspend opposing candidates is protected by the First Amendment.

    Even weak provisions for public funding would be useful, to provide seed money for minor party candidates and are, therefore, useful in promoting a democratic system. Laws for implementing this are not easy to devise. It is necessary to provide at least minimal funds to legitimate candidates, while guarding against schemes to divert public funds into private pockets. But, existing laws for public funding do not help third party presidential candidates, and those in control, the same people who excluded third parties from the presidential debates, are not likely to permit the passage of laws that would help finance their campaigns.

    People Versus Money

    As indicated above, breaking the 2-party monopoly, which is fueled by money supplied by big corporations and wealthy people, might appear to be a hopeless struggle. But maybe not. There is more to election campaigns than money. While it takes big bucks to buy time on TV, where most electioneering takes place nowadays, there are other ways to campaign. If we are to come up with a way to further the interests of people as opposed to dollars, then we need to use a people-to-people approach, which shouldn't be too hard, since, ultimately, votes are cast by people.

    In olden times, people actually talked directly to other people, asking them to vote for specific candidates. One method was simply to knock on doors in their neighborhoods. Another was to hold house parties, inviting neighbors to attend. Larger meetings, or demonstrations focussed on specific issues, have also been used effectively in election campaigns. Still another method was to hand out leaflets on the street. Such low-tech approaches are labor intensive, but very effective. Instead of money, it requires people willing to donate time and energy. It also has the merit of treating voters respectfully, as real people to be reasoned with, as opposed to treating them as targets of sound bites.

    For those who might regard such primitive, person-to-person, methods as beneath them (not to mention the risk of exposure to contagious diseases!), there is the high tech approach. The internet can be used in a number of ways to get the word out about issues and candidates. Apart from party and candidate websites, now standard campaign tools, there are various websites on which political issues are discussed, and inputs invited.

    Other potentially useful internet facilities include Facebook and Twitter. Email lists can be compiled and online discussion groups formed or joined. Of course all these methods are already being used to exchange political ideas. What is needed are better organized operations by the third parties, to mobilize and intelligently deploy adequate numbers of volunteers.

    The Voter ID Problem

    There are other election-related situations in which ordinary people can act directly and effectively without the need for pots of money. A good example is the area of voter registration, and identification of voters at the polls. There are claims, not backed by much evidence, that many people not legally entitled to vote are fraudulently casting ballots. The proposed solution is to require voters to show up at the polls with photo ID cards. But, many people, especially among the rural and inner city poor, do not have such cards and would have trouble obtaining them; often they would have to get to some remotely located office, open only at awkward times.

    Due to suspicion (which I believe is well founded) that this voting requirement is part of an effort to discourage poor people from voting, organizations concerned about this effect have been fighting against voter ID requirements in the political arena, e.g., in state legislatures.

    But, regardless of whether or not significant numbers of people not entitled to vote are in fact doing so illegally, a requirement for appropriate voter ID is not unreasonable. Efforts to block or eliminate such a requirement are hard to justify, costly, and are likely to fail in many cases. A much better use of resources would be to accept the need for reasonable ID at the polls, and then to organize locally to assist poor people in meeting that requirement. For example, volunteers could inform people of the need for ID, and offer to drive them to the offices issuing them. This approach would be less costly, more likely to succeed, less vulnerable to legitimate criticism, and would fit neatly into a general campaign to get out the vote.

    Can People Prevail Over Money?

    Of course, some money is needed for the methods sketched above. But, even if efforts to get some public funding fail, it is surely feasible to raise modest campaign funds via small individual contributions not exceeding a hundred dollars.

    Can a small number of very wealthy people use large sums of money to elect governments that will consistently favor the wealthy against the vast majority of the population? Indeed this has been happening in an increasingly blatant manner for a long time.

    But it doesn't have to be that way. The big advantage that the 99% has over the 1% is that there are more of us than there are of them. The challenge is to exploit that advantage intelligently to overcome the money factor.


    ACLU, "Amicus Curiae Brief on Citizens United Case", 7/29/2009

    FEC, "Public Funding of Presidential Elections", Federal Election Commission, February 2012

    Ira Glasser, "Understanding the Citizens United Ruling", The Huffington Post, February 3, 2010

    Sara Kugler, "Bloomberg Campaign Spending Actually $108 Million", Huffington Post, 1/15/2010

    Stephen H. Unger, "The Rich and the Rest of Us: Gross Inequality Versus Democracy", Ends and Means, January 13, 2009

    Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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