Today I had the great opportunity to visit my hometown: Salem, OR! I went with three other political science majors and Professor Lochner to Willamette University to hear eight hours of lectures on one of the world’s most surprisingly interesting topics: campaign finance. We listened to first rate experts talk about Super PACs, the 2012 presidential election, “dark money”, judicial elections, and the general costs and benefits of campaign contributions. By the time the conference had ended, I found that I had taken roughly 25 pages of notes.
So, after all that, what can I tell you that I took away from the conference? It’s a serious question. What can you tell a person after you’ve spent an entire day absorbing information about a subject you know nearly nothing about? You leave with the feeling of your head spinning, drowsy from waking up in the fives (before 6:00am), jittering from the five+ cups of coffee drank (drunk?) throughout the day, mind aclouded from trying to attend to specialists talking rapidly about an interesting, but alien subject. The one thing that we four undergraduates who attended the conference had in common: we’re all taking a class at the law school on election law as our senior capstone for political science. The other one thing we all had in common: this subject was entirely new to us.
But allow me to indulge myself. Despite the minimal background knowledge I possess on the topic, and despite the fact that it’s still the same day (sort of), I would like to try to reconstruct some of the more interesting points that I can remember being made in the course of this full day of intellectual stimulation.
The opening lecture was given by chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Ellen Weintraub, trying to answer the following question: given that the US spends more money on elections than any other nation, is that influence deleterious, and if so, what should be done? Her answer to that question was ‘no’, and ‘nothing’. We want an informed electorate and spending on ads helps to give voters the information they need to make informed voting decisions. The fact that we spend so much money shows the world that we care a lot about democracy. And for those who say that we spend too much, they might be wrong. We spend more money on halloween decorations than we do on voting, which maybe indicates that even as we outspend every other nation on elections, we still do not care about the way our nation is governed as much as perhaps we should.
The problem of course with campaign contributions is that it leads to the appearance of corruption. Weintraub didn’t diminish this point; in fact she emphasized it. If contributions go to organizations devoted solely to electing a candidate, there seems to be something perverse about such influences. The FEC is supposed to regulate this process to prevent our politics from appearing corrupt, but because they’re always responding to the last thing that has happened, and because people are always trying to find new ways to influence politics in their favor, the committee cannot keep up. This is a problem for the legitimacy of US elections. On the one hand, spending is important for democracies because it’s the only way that average voters can learn about their candidates. On the other hand, such spending can be harmful because it leads to the appearance (and maybe even the actuality) of corruption. This is one of the major dilemmas of regulating campaign finance.
The next section of the conference featured a panel with such distinguished speakers as Michael Beckel, Rob Kelner, and Bradley Smith. They talked about the contemporary prevalence of Super PACs and the effect on politics that such politically active non-profits allow for. The first speaker (Beckel) emphasized that only .5% of American adults account for 2/3 of political campaign spending. This number should shock, because if true, it means that elections are a game played and won by America’s wealthiest elites. The next two speakers told a different story. Kelner claimed that Super PACs are in fact much ado about nothing. Super PACs are good, he argues, because they force corporations (who would be donating anyways) to disclose their donations leading to more transparent politics. He claimed that Super PAC controversy merely distracts from a more important and interesting change in politics, namely that get out the vote programs can no longer be adequately funded by political parties. For this reason, he claimed, Romney lost the election (the RNC couldn’t provide funding to GOTV). He argues that in future elections, Democrats will have the same problem, and parties will have less and less influence in politics, meaning that they will play less of a moderating role. And as a consequence, parties will radicalize ideologically. Time will tell if his prediction comes true. Lastly, Bradley Smith argued that campaign finance is regulated much more heavily than it should be: the reason we have limits, he argues, is to prevent quid pro quo arrangements between candidates and donors (corruption). But bribery laws won’t prevent this. They fail to achieve their intended purpose and have all kinds of unintended consequences.
I’ll do one more panel summary, just so you get the idea. In a panel titled “The Future of Public Financing,” we heard Richard Briffault, and Paul Diller pontificate on where the trends are pointing. Professor Briffault spoke quickly in an attempt to say as much as possible in the short amount of time he had allotted. If it weren’t for my quick typing skills, I would have lost most of what he said. His main idea was that public funding programs tend to reduce levels of private funding in elections. As a consequence, there are fewer deleterious influences in the political process, but candidates tend to be stuck with whatever funding limit they’ve been assigned, which may or may not be enough to win the election. Of course, just as this seems to resolve some problems it causes many more. And for this reason, Briffault concludes that we should rethink public funding, not as a solution, but as a system that is inevitably private while being supplemented/complemented by public funding.
Finally, Diller examined some reasons why “voter owned elections” failed in the one place they should have succeeded: ultra-liberal Portland, OR. While a publicly funded election scheme should have reduced the undue influence of wealthy donors and interest groups, broadened opportunities for citizen involvement, and decreased the disillusionment we have with local government, Oregon’s public financing program did none of these things. The main reason for this had to do with scandals involving the very publicly financed politicians that were supposed to bring new legitimacy to Oregon’s democratic process. Emily Boyles was revealed to have improperly amassed contributions, and Vladimir Golovan had apparently forged signatures and engaged in identity theft to try and help candidates like Boyles. Additionally, other publicly financed candidates had very poor showings (receiving 10% or less of the vote), and certain contingencies had not been well thought through in advance (like what to do when a commissioner who assigns public finances resigns in the middle of his term and you don’t know how much money should now apply). In short, when the system of public funding had been tried, it did not work out well, and while this may not have been an intrinsic failure of the new system, it does not lend support to people who believe that the old system needs to be reformed. Insofar as it can and should be reformed, reforms need to be much better thought through. And this seems to be the major problem with campaign finance. The issue appears wickedly complicated and good ideas ought to be well thought through before they are implemented if one hopes to avoid replacing one problem with several more.
In sum, that was just half of the campaign finance conference we attended. There is much more to reflect on (the panel on judicial elections, the panel on campaign finance in Oregon specifically, and the keynote address by Lawrence Norton). We learned a lot, had a blast, and spent a day in Salem. I could say more, but after a long day, much thought, and many beers, there’s only one thing left to say: all is fair in love and war, so why are we so concerned about elections?