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Rigging the elections and money in US politics

Campaign finance is at the very heart of complaints about elections. Let’s look at some of the claims about money’s role, and proposals to change it.


Money and its potentially corrupting influence is at the very heart of complaints about politics in the United States, and every two years, many candidates promise voters that they’ll try to reform a system that they say has been broken by congressional inaction and the Supreme Court.

Over the last year, Bernie Sanders has built his presidential campaign around the charge that the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations in elections has led to the passage of laws that have widened the chasm between the rich and the poor. Hillary Clinton has also called for significant campaign-finance reform, and even Donald Trump has joined in, calling out his Republican rivals for being beholden to their major donors. Most other Republicans have rejected calls for reform on the principle that political speech should not be restricted.

Here we take a look at the claims about the influence of money on politics and the various proposals to reduce it.


The problem of money in politics is so universally recognized that even Donald Trump, the ultimate capitalist, and Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, agree on it. Sanders has spent his career railing against the corrupting influence of wealthy and corporate donors, while Trump has unmasked the game by admitting that he gave money to politicians to curry favor with them. The success of both of these politicians suggests the degree to which Americans are fed up with the influence of money on politics. If we don't reduce that influence, our system risks losing its legitimacy.


Trump’s truth-telling aside (if that’s what it is), this premise is much shakier and polarizing than political rhetoric often makes it seem. Can money be separated from politics?

The answer to that is almost certainly no. At their core, democratic elections are a battle of personalities and ideas, and the only way to inform voters about their choices in an election is make sure that the messages of candidates reach them. And just about any way you cut it, that’s going to cost money—whether it’s to pay for advertising, to set up and run a website, to hire people as staffers, or to hold rallies or events that the media will cover. Campaigns for local office can often be run on the cheap. Candidates rely on volunteers to run their campaigns and on social media, rather than paid advertising, to spread their message. But they're never totally free.


The Holy Grail for many campaign-finance reformers is publicly-funded elections, but even in cities and states that have them currently, most are based on matching funds, which requires candidates to raise a minimum amount of money to demonstrate viability. And proposals for public funding of elections in Congress don’t totally eliminate private donations, either.

So that leads us to a second question: If we ​could​ separate money from politics, should we? This is really the fundamental divide over campaign financing in the United States. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was based on the principle—long shared by conservatives—that campaign contributions are a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment. And to the dismay of most Democrats, the Citizens United ruling extended those protections not just to individuals but to corporations (and labor unions), leading critics to charge that the Supreme Court had decreed that corporations were effectively the same as people.

Whatever the interpretation, the ruling inarguably allowed wealthy individuals, businesses, and other groups to use money to influence elections with more freedom than they had before.


If Citizens United was so pivotal in aggravating the problem, the Supreme Court should overturn it. The ruling misinterpreted the First Amendment as a protection of money in politics, and it conflated corporations with individuals in a way that opened the floodgates for companies to spend millions—or even billions—to influence elections.


What precedent is there for the Court to reverse itself so quickly and dramatically?

Right now there's a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and whoever replaces the late Justice Antonin Scalia could determine the fate of Citizens United. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have pledged to appoint someone who would overturn the 2010 ruling, and while that’s a litmus test that President Obama hasn’t explicitly endorsed, it’s unlikely that anyone he nominates will win confirmation by the Republican-led Senate. The GOP presidential candidates, by contrast, are pledging to appoint a justice in the mold of Scalia, who voted in support of Citizens United. Still, even if a Democratic president decides Scalia’s replacement, the decision is now a precedent of the high court, and there’s no guarantee the justices will revisit the case—or a similar challenge—in the immediate future.