In an increasingly partisan country, one issue threatens both sides and the integrity of the democracy on which America was built. The messy and corrupt realm of campaign finance has been worsening every year, and the 2012 presidential election presents a frightening future with the increasing influence of Super PACs.
Political Action Committees (PACs) are created to raise and spend money to elect or defeat certain candidates. There are limits to the amounts corporations and private persons can give directly to the candidates, but no limits in donations to the PACs. A Supreme Court ruling in 2010 allowed for what are now known as Super PACs, free from many of the restrictions of the first-generation PACs. These large organizations are free to spend millions campaigning for or against candidates in federal races with no restrictions, as long as they do not directly affiliate with the candidates. There are laws requiring public disclosure of each donor, but none regarding amounts of money or what it can be used for. The top earning Super PAC, Restore Our Future, has spent over $96 million in support of Mitt Romney this year while Obama’s biggest supporter, Priorities USA, has spent close to $44 million. In the month of September alone, Super PACs spent $214,710,046.
What we have seen as a result of Super PACs making up the majority of campaign financing is corporations investing in the candidates that best serve their business interests with a general disregard for the interests of the common citizen. Fears have also arisen of candidates unfairly favoring these donors when making policy decisions, essentially allowing corporations to have a large influence on many rulings. This is a slippery slope – it’s easy to see elections becoming a contest of who can throw the most money around rather than a choice between different ideologies.
The more disconcerting problem seems to be the colossal waste of money spent on commercials, spam mail, and other advertising ploys when the country is in such dire economic straits. Hundreds of millions have been spent on spiteful attack ads, unopened letters, and trivial radio spots. Think about what this money could be doing if the candidates it supported could actually use it in office: the average teacher’s salary is $42,000. It costs $40,000 a year to feed a homeless person. A wind turbine that can power a home costs $35,000-$50,000. How can these companies in good conscience spend such astronomical amounts campaigning when there is so much to be fixed?
An unfortunate yet little-discussed side effect of Super PACs is the non-viability of victory for alternative parties. The Democrats and Republicans are able to raise huge amounts of money, translating to more exposure, more company support, and more votes. Yet this leaves almost every other party fighting tooth and nail for any sort of exposure and essentially limiting Americans to only two choices. Take Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, the Green Party and Libertarian candidates for president respectively. Do these names sound familiar to you? Despite appearing on the ballot in over 40 states, most Americans probably have never heard of these two, let alone their ideas. Stein was even arrested outside Tuesday’s presidential debate in a desperate attempt to make her voice heard. But with campaign financing reform and fair exposure, perhaps one of these two might have a shot at gaining traction and saving many Americans from voting for what they feel is “the lesser of two evils.”
Proponents of Super PACs have argued that Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum could not have afforded to run their campaigns or compete with Mitt Romney in the Republican primaries without them. These people are missing the point – if it weren’t for Super PACs, Romney would not have been as far ahead as he was. In theory, if the candidates had all had equal funding, the candidate would have been picked who had the strongest ideas and most public support, instead of one that simply outspent all the rest.
Changes have been made to eliminate the influence of Super PACs in elections. So-called “clean elections” have been proposed, which give candidates a certain amount of public funding and ban use of outside donations or personal money. When privately funded candidates outspend their opponents, matching funds would be provided up to a certain point. The goal is to limit the wasteful spending of money on campaigning while also providing equal exposure for each candidate. Many states have experimented with it to varying degrees of success. A study by the Center for Governmental Studies found that clean elections resulted in more candidates, competition, and voter participation, and less corporate influence. Others have shown it to be less effective, but the idea represents a much needed recognition and reform of current campaign financing laws.
President Obama called the decision allowing for the creation of Super PACs a “threat to our democracy.” While being derided for taking this stance and now catering to the PACs for support, the Obama campaign has stated that they are resigned to the current system and have little choice but to encourage Super PAC support. Regardless of this perceived hypocrisy, Obama’s initial judgment is starting to look prophetic. As a nation, we should not have to settle for large corporations taking the place of voters in deciding elections. We should not have to fear our leaders looking out for their financial supporters instead of for the citizens they have sworn to serve. There’s no simple solution to solving campaign finance, but both parties should be worried about the future if we allow this to continue.