Disclosure, not restriction, needs to be the key goal of campaign finance reform.
Worry about big money’s effect on elections has been focused recently on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which declared that corporation and union campaign spending can’t be limited without infringing on their free speech rights.
The issue, though, has a long and colorful history dating back at least to the 1800s, with myriad attempts to stem the influence of wealthy donors and political machines. Efforts at reform invariably have been undercut by lax enforcement, loopholes or challenges based on free speech.
Ironically, some of the biggest spenders in the 2012 election were also big losers, according to a report from Public Broadcasting Service’s “Frontline” show. That report cites casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s $53 million to conservative candidates, most of whom lost. Also, Karl Rove’s Crossroads group spent $300 million with little success.
Still, even many who accept the underlying principles in Citizens United remain uneasy about the influence of money in politics. An Associated Press poll earlier this year showed 83 percent of Americans believe some limits should apply, although they don’t agree on the details of how that should happen.
Current reform efforts are focused at overturning Citizens United by constitutional amendment, attracting small donors and doing a better job of enforcing existing laws, according to the “Frontline” report.
A better approach would be to focus on making sure we know where the money comes from, making it easy to know who is supporting whom. That would allow voters to make decisions based on a complete picture, not on the limited, distorting view advanced by misleading advertising supported by those donations. It would help overcome the most damaging aspect of campaign donations, the fact that much of that money buys ads designed to obscure rather than illuminate.