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Week 20: Campaign Financing/Advertising

With the 2020 election wrapping up, we thought it would be important to talk about campaign financing, what it is, who it affects, and why we need to change the system. 

Here is a great introductory video in which congresswoman Cortez explains the dangers of dark money.

How does money get spent during campaigns?

Money is spent in two general avenues: publicity and overhead expenses. Politics is a popularity contest — so advertising such as lawn signs, billboards, leaflets, direct mailings, and social media and tv ads are all very important to get a candidate’s image and message out to the public. Money is also spent on operations such as plane tickets, hotel rooms, staff, event catering, and other campaign trail expenses. 

What effect does money have on campaigns?

The amount of money a candidate raises is directly proportional to their chance of winning. For example, in the 2018 general elections, 89% of candidates elected to the House spent more money on their campaigns than their opponents (83% in Senate). For that reason, it is very important for candidates to raise money, so large corporate and individual donors can influence policy by ensuring that the candidates they support financially implement their visions if elected. 

How do candidates get money?

Candidates and political organizations can get donations from individuals, private groups, or the government. There is a complex web of regulations that vary depending on who is giving money, how much they are donating, and to whom they are donating it (candidate or party). These regulations include donation limits, spending caps, and requirements for candidates to release certain information (such as donor names, amounts, and spending). This being said, most regulations have legal loopholes and insufficient enforcement.

Citizens United (2010), Super PACS, and Dark Money 

In the 2010 SCOTUS case Citizens United V. Federal Elections Committee, the court ruled that restricting corporate funding on election activities was a violation of the first amendment.

This decision allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of “soft money” on election funding so long as they are not directly coordinating with the candidate. This allowed for the creation of a ‘Super PAC,’ a sub-group of political action committees that can raise and donate unlimited amounts of money from corporations and individuals. 

From 2010 to 2018, Super PACs have spent more than 2.9 billion dollars on federal elections, advertising, and other materials that directly support or attack candidates. Where traditional political action committees are only able to contribute $5,000 to each candidate per year and election, the lack of limitation on super PACs allow corporations and individuals to influence elections without bounds. Although they must disclose their donors, Super PACs still allow for over a billion dollars without traceable sources (dark money) to enter the election cycles through shell corporations or other anonymous donor groups. This is particularly relevant in this election cycle, as “more than $116 million in political spending and 2020 contributions can be traced back to ‘dark money’ groups aligned with Democratic or Republican party leadership.”

Some problems with our current system:

Candidates’ chances of winning are largely reliant on their campaign spending, which makes it much more difficult for grassroots candidates (people that don’t take corporate or pac money) to succeed. This means that without change, the wealthy well connected members of society will continue to hold office, denying low-income communities true representation within our government and perpetuating a system that won’t prioritize their needs. This is closely tied to the second issue, which is that politicians can be controlled or at least highly influenced by corporations and individuals behind the scenes, meaning that the decisions being made about our laws, rights, and day to day lives are not being made by those we elect to office, rather the people who have enough money to be heard. Although there is a committee which is supposed to regulate campaign financing, it has been inefficient due to a lack of bi-partisan cooperation, allowing dark money spending to proliferate. 

What can we do about it?

While there is a desire to increase regulations and enact reform, a catch-22 exists where those elected to office can’t push for that reform because it would go against the interests of their sponsors. That being said, there is hope through organizations such as Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats that are working to help large numbers of candidates get elected who pledge to not take any PAC money or corporate sponsorship. Through organizations like these candidates such as the women who make up “The Squad” can be elected to government positions in order to truly represent and fight for their communities.