Big bucks in elections hurt our democracy

Last Friday, the Occupy movement may have finally set its populist ire on a real, reasonable target.

At federal courthouses across the country, protestors demonstrated against corporate influence on politics.

Activists argue that new campaign finance laws are corrupting American democracy.

Campaign finance in America changed drastically with the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case <i>Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission</i>.

In this case, the court ruled that money spent on political causes constitutes free speech, and limiting expenditures on political speech is unconstitutional.

This opens up huge channels into which money from corporations and labor unions will flow, changing how campaigns will be paid for, now and in the future.

Current campaign finance laws prohibit huge donations to political parties and individual candidates. For instance, the maximum donation for an individual to any one campaign is $2,500.

However, big donors can now sidestep those laws by donating to political action committees.

Ostensibly, political action committees are not involved with any candidates. But many exist solely to get certain candidates elected.

Each presidential candidate, including the incumbent president, has a political action committee devoted to furthering his or her political cause.

They have vague, empty names such as Restoring Our Future, Priorities USA and the Red, White, and Blue Fund (supporting Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama and Rick Santorum, respectively).

These organizations, which don’t always have to disclose their donors’ names, are where the big bucks go.

The consequences of this legal loophole are alarming. We have already seen its effects as recently as last Saturday’s Republican presidential primary in South Carolina.

The Newt Gingrich campaign received a huge boost on Jan. 9, in the form of a $5 million check from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson. The donation went to Winning Our Future, the political action committee that supports Gingrich.

This is 2,000 times more than he is legally allowed to donate to the Gingrich campaign itself. But by cutting the check to a political action committee, he can give as much as he wants.

Previously, Mitt Romney dominated the South Carolina airwaves, and Gingrich’s campaign had been declared dead after a fourth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary.

But <i>The New York Times</i> reports that in the week or so before the primary, with its fresh infusion of cash, the pro-Gingrich political action committee spent over $3.4 million on TV ads.

Gingrich won handily in South Carolina on Sunday and has turned the Republican race upside-down with the surprise victory. Why people are so easily swayed by 30-second clips on TV is anyone’s guess. But nothing better explains Gingrich’s sudden surge in the polls.

Essentially, Adelson was able to change the entire Republican primary race with nothing but his own wealth.

It stands to reason that he has a lot more sway over who will be president than you or me.

Allowing single donors to spend this much on campaigns threatens the integrity of our elections, and thus, our democracy. Free speech is a constitutional right, but it is not absolute. Numerous types of speech are not protected by law, for obvious reasons.

We cannot incite others to unlawful conduct with speech, nor can we publish libelous material. Among other examples is the classic, “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater if there’s no fire.”

Huge campaign contributions are another form of speech that ultimately hurts us.

Given money’s huge influence on political campaigns, something must be done to curb this trend.

Move to Amend, the group that organized the courthouse protests, supports a constitutional amendment that will end corporate personhood, the principle that makes these huge contributions legal.

While amending the Constitution is no easy task, it may be necessary to ensure that our elections express the will of the people, not just the wealthiest among us.

<i>Opinion Editor Jack Clinch is a sophomore political science major at Seattle Pacific.</i>

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Title: Big bucks in elections hurt our democracy | Author: Jack Clinch | Section: Opinions | Published Date: 2012-01-25 | Internal ID: 7972

Jack Clinch

Jack Clinch is a senior political science major.