Money Still Large Factor in Elections

Jacy Su '18 Contributing Writer

The results of the 2014 midterm elections are out and campaign fundraisers can finally rest. People with knowledge of  the American electoral system will understand that Wall Street is not the only place money never sleeps: In U.S. elections, money is a decisive factor with the power to change the political landscape.

The American people apparently are willing to throw money into presidential and congressional campaigns to ensure their candidates get elected (or re-elected). Since a well-funded candidate usually has better chance of election, the ability to pull in money helps decide whether a candidate will triumph.

It’s no surprise that at a cost of $4 billion USD, the recent midterm election is reportedly the most expensive midterm cycle in American history. Indeed, data shows there is a tendency for each election to be more expensive than the former. Thanks to 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and the loose campaign finance laws in America, we will see even more money successively flood into the system. Since the ruling, super PACs have been allowed to raise unlimited funds for supporting certain candidates or mobilizing voters.

Big donors now can choose to donate anonymously without public notice. At the same time, without restricted flows, campaigning has become more expensive and will continue to become increasingly expensive in the future.

While some people complain about the corrupt electoral system, dirty politicians and mega-donors, other voices justify unrestricted campaign contributions. Writing for the 5-4 majority in the 2003 decision regarding McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens aptly wrote, “Money, like water, will always find an outlet,” anticipating their decision would not stand for long.

Conservative members of the court led by Chief Justice John Roberts have already upheld that independent expenditure is protected under the First Amendment, indicating big corporations may donate significant funds to support their candidates. At the same time, some people argue that voters actually benefit from the proliferation of interest groups because the information that interest groups generate (through spending money) helps voters make informed decisions.

However, we cannot ignore a fact that excessive amounts of soft money in the system makes hard money, contributions from the average person made directly to a political candidate, less important. If money is a form of speech, is it permissible for people who have the most money to speak the loudest in politics? The answer is no.

As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the dissent for April’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision, conservatives’ focus on “the individual’s right to engage in political speech” fails to account for “the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters.” In other words, overemphasis of independent expenditures not only results in corruption, but also neglects public interest.

In contemporary America, the possible solution to the dilemma is finding a balance between encouraging corruption and protecting the freedom of speech. This is easier said than done, but it is time for campaign finance regulators to think about this real problem.