The two easiest political predictions to make are that the coming U.S. presidential race will be the most expensive in history and that money will dominate the 2016 elections, both across the country and in Maine. The Republican presidential candidates know this, as do the American voters and the people of Maine. That is why comprehensive reform of the way we run elections is needed, starting in Maine with a “yes” vote on Question 1 this November.
According to the Federal Election Commission, $7 billion was spent in the 2012 elections. At least $2.6 billion was spent on the presidential race, with President Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s campaigns and their network of PACs and parties spending more than $1 billion each. If 2016 comes true to form, expect total spending to approach $10 billion and each of the two major presidential candidate campaigns spending $1.5 billion or more.
Money makes the difference in campaigns. Generally the candidate who spends the most wins. Money determines access to television and media events. It pays for get out the vote efforts. It finances staff and pays campaign workers. The ability to raise money is the real primary, determining who will be successful in the primaries, caucuses and general election.
Money does more than talk; it allocates political power. The Republican presidential contenders acknowledge this. In the first presidential debate, Donald Trump boasted that his political contributions to Sen. Hillary Clinton forced her to attend his wedding. In the second debate, Trump and Jeb Bush squared off over assertions that Trump tried to buy political access to build a casino in Florida while Bush was governor, while other candidates freely acknowledged the power of special interests and money in politics. Polls, such as a recent one by the New York Times, indicate that the public believes money has too much of an influence on politicians and that campaign finance reform is needed. Maine voters believe the same, which is why in 1996 they passed the Cleans Elections Reform Act.
Yet the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has all but destroyed efforts to take money out of politics and, in the process, gutted reforms such as those found in Maine. A “yes” vote on Question 1 is a first step to undoing the damage the Supreme Court has rendered, but far more is required.
What is needed is a more comprehensive way to think about how we fund political campaigns and the role that money plays in politics. In other situations the Supreme Court has talked of a separation of church and state; we need a separation of money and politics.
Once, in my capacity as president of Common Cause Minnesota, I met with former Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who stated that election laws were the “rules that determined the rules of game.” By that he meant the rules of election law, including how money could be spent for political purposes, determined how the game of politics and democracy would be played. Decide these prior rules, and they determine the latter. His point is simple: There are important values that a democracy must articulate and enable. Our Constitution sets the ground rules for ordinary politics, including how campaigns and elections are to be run and funded.
Nowhere in the Constitution or in the First Amendment does it declare that money is speech. Money may be a great way to allocate consumer goods such as sailboats, but it is not an appropriate way to distribute political power, influence and authority. The Constitution demands “one person, one vote,” not “one dollar, one vote.” Those who argue that individuals and corporations should be allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money in politics confuse capitalism with democracy. America may be a capitalist country, but not everything should be for sale.
Limits on the role that money plays in politics are needed to ensure that dollars do not decide the issues on the political agenda. Campaign finance laws not only protect money from drowning out minority voices but also prevent the entrenched few from using their resources to thwart majority rule. Question 1 is part of this broader battle to restore democracy in Maine and the United States, giving people again a voice in how their government operates.
David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a member of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.