The U.S. Supreme Court is considering at least one case in which the plaintiff is contesting laws that establish limits on campaign donations. On the one hand, the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, press, and association. Campaign contributions are arguably elements of all three. On the other hand, the Constitution also intends democratic government constructed upon the premise of one vote per person. Somehow, unlimited spending seems to skew that electoral process in favor of moneyed interests. In the vast preponderance of cases, money prevails, with the candidate (or cause, if the vote is a referendum) who spends (or for which is spend) the most money winning.
Stipulating the precise way in which money improperly skews electoral results is difficult, as Harvard philosopher Michael Walzer recognized:
"The problem is hard, for money talks in subtle and indirect ways, and sometimes, no doubt, the people for whom it talks are admirable people; success in the market does not come only to ruthless and self-serving entrepreneurs. Still, this is insidious talk in a democratic state, and it requires us to seek some way of limiting the accumulation of money (much as we must limit its weight)." (Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 112)
Yet one does not have to read the Jewish and Christian scriptures very carefully to recognize that the problem of the wealthy trying to take advantage of the poor is not new. People tend to act in ways that accord with their perceived self-interest. Defenders of democracy and capitalism, and I number myself among both, rightly argue that those systems, by balancing contending self-interests against one another, tend to produce fairer, more just, results than do systems, such as oligarchy and oligopoly, in which one set of self-interests prevail over others.
Why should citizens seek a democratic system in which financial resources in candidates (or both sides of a referendum question) have roughly equal funds? Because campaign financing is a matter of justice, allowing contending voices to be heard more equally.
One way in which money's influence effects elections is through increasing the breadth and distribution of ads. Marketing professionals, psychologists, parents, and others know that more times a person receives a message, the more likely the person is to accept and then to act upon that message.
A second way in which money can effect elections is through enhancing the quality of ads. The correlation is imperfect. Some low budget ads are extremely effective; some high budget ads flop. Nevertheless, having more money available tends to increase the quality of ads a campaign produces.
Yet a third way in which can alter electoral outcomes is by creating, or creating the appearance of, momentum. Many people prefer to be part of a winning rather than a losing cause. Momentum, or its appearance, can cause premature or even incorrect shifts.
Regardless of any imbalance in campaign funds, the public should know the identity and amount given by large donors. The threshold for public disclosure might be whichever is less, $100,000 or 1% of the total the candidate/cause has raised. Establishing a relatively high threshold prevents the minutia of all donors burying the identity of important ones. A person who gave $1,000 to a presidential campaign has made a statement about his/her beliefs but will reasonably not expect anything in return. The person who gives 1% of the a candidate's total raised, whether $200 in a local election or $1 million in a presidential campaign, generally expects access to the candidate during both the campaign and any tenure in office the candidate wins, access that includes opportunity to express views on issues important to the donor. At the least, this access unfairly advantages large donors. At the worst, this access symbolizes the pernicious influence of moneyed interests.
More broadly, many elected office holders – including all federal ones, except perhaps a second term president – probably spend a majority of their time raising funds for the next election. Voters did not elect office holders to raise money; an officer holder focused on soliciting campaign contributions lacks the time and focus to properly fulfill their duties.
Increasingly, I think full, adequate, and mandatory public funding of most elections may constitute the best option. Public funding would not be outrageously expensive. For example, a presidential election might reasonably cost $4 billion today ($1 billion for each major party candidate, a total of $2 billion for candidates who lose in the primaries and any third party candidate(s)). U.S. senate elections might cost $30 per registered voter (something less than $1.5 billion every two years), and the same for the House of Representatives. In sum, federal elections would cost, recognizing the need for future adjustments for inflation, less than $10 billion every four years or $2.5 billion per year. Although that's a significant amount of money, it is less than $8 per citizen per year, a relatively small and very affordable cost for improving our democracy.
Public funding would eliminate the distraction of constantly raising money and the electoral system's bias toward moneyed interests. Candidates already have to file comprehensive reports on how they spend contributions. These reports, perhaps with minor adjustments, should prove adequate to prevent fraud. Previous efforts to replace private funding with public have failed, in substantial measure, because the public funds proved inadequate or candidates believed they could raise more money privately.
Realistically, mandatory, full, and adequate public financing of elections and referenda will not entirely eliminate the undue influence that moneyed interests exert on the political process. Moneyed interests could use their resources to promote causes, organize support for issues apart from voting, and still often enjoy disproportionately easy access to most elected officials.
Completely leveling the political playing field is impossible and probably socially undesirable, e.g., some moneyed interests may have a more, insightful wide-angle perspective on an issue or have earned their wealth through intellect and ability that is valuable to an office holder. However, campaign contributions that come with explicit, or more often implicit, expectations wrongly skew voting. Office holders whose top priority is raising money for the next election wrongly deemphasize their public responsibilities.