Can Campaign Finance Reform Save Us?


“As Americans read about the flood of private money that is going into the current presidential campaign, most can’t help but shake their heads in disgust about how our democracy functions.

”With all the talk about changing Washington, voters are shrewd enough to understand that if contributors give this much money to the candidates in both parties, there is little chance that Washington will be much different in 2013.”

This is how Princeton University Professor of history and public affairs, Julian Zelizer, began his latest commentary for CNN, It took a scandal to get real campaign finance reform.

His article is one of the first in a new series put out by CNN, “money in politics,” which focusses entirely on issues surrounding campaign finance reform.

Indeed, Americans’ concern with money’s influence over government has reached a fevered pitch – calls for “campaign finance reform,” and for government to “get the money out” of politics, even topped New York City General Assembly’s top two ”national chants” for the movement.

The theme has been a focal point of recent protests to such an extent, in fact, that even Florida’s Representative Ted Deutch and Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico have felt there is some justification for introducing constitutional amendments to curb corporate influence over government.

But what exactly are the proposed “campaign finance reforms,” and are they policies we should take seriously?

The reforms:

Campaign finance reformers scored their first major victory in 1972 with the passage of the Federal Elections Campaign Act, or FECA, which required candidates to disclose  sources of campaign contributions and expenditures, put caps on the amount of “hard money” individuals could donate to a campaign, and also created, for the first time a public financing system for politicians to opt into.

But reform advocates have attempted to push these regulations further.

Their proposals have ranged from creating a “matching system,” where government literally “matches” the small contributions of citizens (theoretically “doubling” their influence and apparently making them more competitive with bigger donors), all the way to Yale Law School professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres‘ proposal for an election system where citizens vote with a fixed number of dollars for which candidate should be funded the most.

Perhaps the most successful current reform effort in the states, however, has been the “clean money” system, which has been in place in Arizona and Maine since 2000.

The system, like FECA, gives candidates who have reached certain signature and donation requirements a fixed amount of state funding for their campaign, should they choose to opt into it. That money then constitutes the bulk of what they will be allowed to spend on their campaign.

The jury is out, however, on whether the “clean money” reforms in these states have achieved significant, or even noteworthy, results for voters. Research on whether the system has decreased incumbency rates or financial influence has been mostly negative (studies to date suggest they haven’t), as have been studies on whether or not “clean money” legislation has increased voter participation (the data again points towards no).