League of Women Voters | Rochester Metropolitan Area, Rochester, NY
Untitled Document

Money in Politics

Part I: Democratic Values and Interests with Respect to Financing Political Campaigns

Question 1 concerns the goals and purposes of campaign finance regulation

Why Money in Politics Matters to the League of Women Voters

Money in politics matters because the goal of campaigning is to convince voters, either for or against a candidate or issue. Thus, campaigning is ultimately about communication. In our modern age, this includes speech and money. One should be aware of the relationship between campaigns, communication, free speech and money when thinking about campaign finance regulations.

Purpose of a Campaign Finance System

A campaign finance system is intended to control and limit the money spent on election campaigns. Why do that?

  1. To protect the right of voters to know who is spending money to influence their vote.
  2. To prevent corruption.
  3. To remove the unfair advantage that unlimited spending can bring. 
  4. Strengthen representative government by increasing the role of voters, possibly leading to improved voter turnout.

Evidence of spending’s impacts on electoral and legislative outcomes

While there are many opinions and suspicions about the impacts of Money in Politics (MIP), it is important to find evidence of actual impacts in order to assess whether reforms in the current system are justified. While the Supreme Court examined over 100,000 pages of evidence before determining that the evidence supported most of the reforms that were passed in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, Court majority opinions in more recent decisions have not relied upon systematically collected empirical evidence. What is the evidence about possible impacts of MIP that meets standards for research quality?

Research on whether MIP has had impacts on election outcomes and legislative actions is extensive. There are 3 types of evidence about whether campaign contributions have negative effects on politics: public opinion surveys, recent experience of participants in the political process, and scholarly research in the political science literature.

Public Opinion Surveys

Public opinion about the integrity of elections and the actions of elected officials is an important source of data in assessing whether campaign contributions create corruption or the appearance of corruption. Public opinion relates to trust that the political system yields legitimate and fair policies that represent the will of the citizenry.

Public opinion since the 2010 Citizens United decision has indicated a high level of criticism for expanding the rights of corporations and other organizations to give unlimited contributions in campaigns. In May 2015, a poll conducted found that 84% of the respondents believe that money has too much influence in politics. This view was held across the political spectrum, including 80% of the registered Republicans, 90% of registered Democrats, and 84% of independents. No studies were found that reported a high level of satisfaction with the current state of campaign financing.

Political Participant Experience

In a recent major study of the views of recent participants in Congressional electoral and legislative arenas about the impacts of the “new soft money,” that is, independent campaign expenditures, the respondents agreed that the substantial growth in the amount of independent campaign spending in the past few years has created significant impacts on campaign activities and some impacts on the legislative process.

The study identified three major impacts of independent spending on campaigns.
1. Increasing pressure for fundraising.
2. Candidates and campaign staff complained that they often lost control of their message when a high number of independently funded ads dominated communication channels to voters.
3. The issue of coordination between campaigns and independent groups is murky. Interviewees believed that candidates “do engage in cooperation through a tapestry of signals that allow them to pursue their electoral goals in concert.”

The study also identified impacts of independent campaign spending on the legislative arena.
1. The implied and sometimes explicit threats made to incumbents that independent spending will target them in the next election if they do not support a particular position of the donor.
2. The amount of campaign contributions can affect whether an issue is given attention or not in the next Congressional session.
3. Less time available for legislative and constituent work due to greater time spent in fundraising
4. Increased partisan polarization because more funding comes from extreme right- and left-wing sources
5. Lower levels of public trust when citizens perceive that legislative activity is for sale.

Academic Research

Researchers have found that elections are very complex phenomena to study in the aggregate because many factors can influence who wins and who loses a particular campaign. Regarding the impacts of MIP on legislative decisions made by officeholders, exposure of quid pro quo bribery is believed to be rare so there are not enough cases for empirical research.

Recent research has focused on whose interests are served by a legislator’s votes. In other words, are legislators responsive to the interests of their constituents or to their donors?

Strong evidence supports the view that legislators are more responsive to the interests of the upper-income segments of society but not responsive to middle-income and lower-income constituents.

Click here for more information about the evidence of spending’s impacts on electoral and legislative outcomes.

Corruption and Rationales for Regulating Campaign Finance

Concern about political corruption has been a fundamental justification for campaign finance regulation for over 100 years. But it is relevant to point out that the Founders were very much concerned about limiting corruption when they debated about the best structure for a representative democracy.

Various approaches to defining corruption and types or categories of corruption have been offered in Court decisions and analyzed in legal scholarship. These include criminal bribery, inequality, drowned voices, a dispirited public, lack of integrity, quid pro quo, monetary influence, distortion, abuse of power and violations of political equality.

Corruption Defined in 1976-2010 Supreme Court Decisions

The nature of what constitutes corruption has been addressed in a number of Supreme Court decisions since Buckley v. Valeo (1976), which set out the quid pro quo standard to define corruption. The concept was broadened in Court decisions from the 1980s until 2010, as noted below, to incorporate concerns about corruption that distorted the political process through undue influence on and undue access to officeholders, resulting in failure to address issues of public concern. Attention to the broader definitions of corruption also focused on issues of trust in the system of representative democracy and political equality.

Quid Pro Quo Corruption

Quid pro quo corruption continues to be an obvious justification for restricting campaign contributions. “Quid pro quo” refers to an exchange between a candidate and donor in which the candidate receives a personal gain from the “sale” of public power. The Supreme Court specifically mentioned quid pro quo corruption as well as the appearance of quid pro quo in the Buckley v. Valeo (1976) decision, which supported restrictions on direct campaign contributions but not on campaign expenditures.

Distortion of the Political Process

A broader interpretation of corruption that has been accepted in support of the regulation of campaign contributions in past Supreme Court cases is distortion of the political process, that is, favoring the interests of large campaign contributors and independent spenders when they conflict with the public interest or the best interests of constituents.

Political Equality

Political equality is the view that citizens have the right to expect that their legislative representatives will be responsive to their needs and interests and not just those of large donors. Arguments based exclusively upon political equality have not been supported by the Supreme Court in campaign finance cases, although they have been used as a secondary consideration.

Narrowing Corruption Back to Quid Pro Quo

The Supreme Court in its 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) retreated to the quid pro quo definition of corruption as the only justification for restricting campaign contributions by corporations, unions, and other interest groups.

Arguments to Support Limits on Campaign Finance Since 2010

In response to Citizens United and subsequent decisions that narrowed the definition of corruption to quid pro quo bribery, three legal scholars have recently offered arguments for government interest in limiting money in campaigns. These scholars argue that the pernicious effects of unlimited campaign contributions and spending are powerful enough to overcome First Amendment free speech concerns. 

Dependence Corruption

“Dependence corruption,” describes the corrupting influence of the current system of reciprocity between donors and officeholders through lobbyists as intermediaries. This is not quid pro quo bribery, but rather a system of “dependence” in which the officeholders need the funds to continue in office and the donors’ desire public policies favorable to their interests, whether ideological or economic.

Electoral Integrity

“Electoral integrity” is the core value to be preserved by fostering public trust in democracy and confidence in elected officials. These fundamental characteristics of representative democracy are weakened by unlimited money in elections.

Misalignment and Responsiveness to Large Donors

Although government policies should reflect voters’ preferences, concentrated contributions skew candidates and elected representatives toward the interests of large donors and away from the interests of the voters in their districts.

Click here for more information about Corruption and Rationales for Regulating Campaign Finance.

All information on the Money in Politics pages has been taken from materials provided by LWVUS.

Remember when thinking about your answers to the Consensus questions, we should respond "without regard for the Supreme Court's current views on the First Amendment," or its current narrow definition of corruption.

Part I Question 1. What should be the goals and purposes of campaign finance regulation?  (Please respond to each item in Question 1.)

a.  Seek political equality for all citizens.
☐ Agree     ☐  Disagree     ☐  No consensus

b.  Protect representative democracy from being distorted by big spending in election campaigns.
☐ Agree     ☐  Disagree     ☐  No consensus

c.  Enable candidates to compete equitably for public office.
☐ Agree     ☐  Disagree     ☐  No consensus

d.  Ensure that candidates have sufficient funds to communicate their messages to the public.
☐ Agree     ☐  Disagree     ☐  No consensus

e.  Ensure that economic and corporate interests are part of election dialogue.
☐ Agree     ☐  Disagree     ☐  No consensus

f.  Provide voters sufficient information about candidates and campaign issues to make informed choices.
☐ Agree     ☐  Disagree     ☐  No consensus

g.  Ensure the public’s right to know who is using money to influence elections.  
☐ Agree     ☐  Disagree     ☐  No consensus

h.  Combat corruption and undue influence in government.
☐ Agree     ☐  Disagree     ☐  No consensus

Continue on to Part I Question 2 and background material.
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