Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


campaign-finance-money

(PHOTO: CHERYL ANN QUIGLEY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

What to Do About Campaign Finance

• November 18, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: CHERYL ANN QUIGLEY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Unlimited political contributions are the new reality. Once we accept that maybe we can start to figure out the complicated relationship between money and politics.

A strategic issues panel at the University of Denver (my employer) recently concluded a study of campaign financing and issued a report, which can be viewed here (PDF). The recommendations are primarily geared toward Colorado politics but have important lessons for the nation at large. As we try to navigate a rapidly changing area of the law and figure out the complicated relationship between money and politics, these recommendations strike me as a pretty decent place to start.

The first conclusion is one that I found surprisingly refreshing. From the summary: “Future campaign finance reforms need to accommodate an environment where unlimited political contributions and spending are the dominant reality.”

This conclusion will no doubt be distressing to those who wish to see money driven from politics. Yet not only is removing money from politics unrealistic, but multiple efforts to do so have generally failed and resulted in even greater opaqueness and inequalities in the American political system. So it’s good that the report starts by acknowledging where we are and are likely to be for the foreseeable future.

If we can’t successfully limit the flow of money from individuals and organizations to parties and candidates, we should at least know where the money is coming from.

Next: “The panel supports the emphasis on personal responsibility for political speech … and recommends that the principle of disclosure at the individual level guide campaign finance policies….”

Also good. If we can’t successfully limit the flow of money from individuals and organizations to parties and candidates, we should at least know where the money is coming from. If you want to run for office with the strong financial backing of tobacco manufacturers, oil companies, and defense contractors, fine. But journalists and voters should be able to easily figure that out and render their own judgment on it.

Disclosure, however, is an incredibly difficult and complex issue today, as the report acknowledges. Recent election cycles have seen the rise of 501(c)(4) charitable organizations, which maintain a non-profit status as long as less than half of their funds are used toward electioneering. Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS is one such organization. It spent more than $70 million in the 2012 cycle with no real disclosure requirements. (Really, check out the chart on page 32, reproduced below, to get a sense of how integrated these groups are in modern campaigns and how they have complicated the relationship between donors and candidates is.)

Should donations to these organizations be publicly reported? Well, sure, but what about those who donate to, say, the League of Conservation Voters with the expectation that their money will only be used for the social welfare functions of the group, like raising awareness of environmental issues, and not on electioneering. Should their contributions be disclosed? It’s possible that these groups provide legitimate public goods, but some donors would be less inclined to support them if it resulted in their name going onto a state or federal website.

20131117-130134.jpg

So I appreciate that the panel recognized and grappled with this complex issue. But I’m not sure the recommendation would do much good: “The panel recommends that all 501(c)(4), (5) and (6) organizations engaging in the political process … offer their donors the ability to choose whether they wish to allow their contribution to be used for political advocacy purposes.”

I don’t think voluntary disclosure really addresses the problem. Those donors with the least politically-appealing agendas will simply decline to disclose their activities.

I do appreciate that the panel recommended some encouragement of public funding of candidates, and it acknowledged the ongoing inequality issue presented by the fact that those contributing large donations to political campaigns are a highly unrepresentative sample of the American electorate. The idea of providing a floor for campaign money, rather than setting a ceiling, is a powerful one, and could help erode some incumbency advantages by helping promising but under-funded candidates run. Unfortunately, the panel chose a very weak form of public financing: a state income tax credit for those making individual contributions. I doubt this will encourage many new donations to challengers, and will probably mainly serve as a tax break for wealthy people who are already backing well-heeled incumbents.

At any rate, there are lots of interesting and provocative ideas in this report, and as far as compendiums of political reforms go, this strikes me as more realistic than most. This is a public debate we very much need to have.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.