The War on Campaign Financing

By Ashley Duong

With the presidential election just around the corner, big-name politicians are trying to make their mark whichever way they can. But going for the highest office that our country offers, takes more than just charisma or personality; it requires massive amounts of money to even be considered a contender. So where does that leave the common, good meaning person who simply wants to make a change for the good within our society? Answer: nowhere. Running for office in our country has become, in the most recent years, an option only for the privileged or in the very least, those supported by the privileged.

Take for example the 2012 presidential election, the most expensive presidential campaign of all time, with over $2 billion spent on both sides combined. Most of this $2 billion was collected and cultivated through Political Action Committees (PACs and super PACs), defined as “an organization whose purpose is to raise and distribute campaign funds to candidates seeking political office.”

The problem with allowing candidates to raise funds through these committees, especially super PACs, is that it allows corporations and other individuals with big money to buy influence through campaign contributions.

Super PACs are a major avenue for large campaign funds because groups are allowed, through the committee, to donate unlimited amounts to a party, much of which is then funnelled to candidates. As a result, parties are allowed to spend unlimited amounts promoting their choice candidate however they see fit: TV ads, flyers, and films. For the most part, super PACs can simply be considered ways for politicians to get loads of money from rich people and conversely, ways for rich people to develop “personal relationships” with politicians.

Because of the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, money is considered free and protected speech and really, why shouldn’t it be? People should be allowed to spend their money in whatever way pleases them.

But this reasoning gives way to inequality. In essence, considering money as a medium of speech allows a louder voice for corporations and billionaires than the common man. Money gives access to politicians and subsequently to the government, which then allows influence over legislation and policy that affect the nation as a whole. This is problematic in that a select and powerful few have the most access to our government and the greatest ability to affect change, that is beneficial only to them.

The rising costs of running for office helps perpetuate the use of super PACs and the importance of campaign donations in general.

But despite the overwhelming amount of evidence pointing towards pricey campaigns, democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is defying the odds and refusing to accept super PACs.

At a “Face the Nation” event in May, Sanders said that “billionaires should not be able to buy politicians.”

As a self-proclaimed socialist, Sanders shuns big money and has yet to ask for any donations from his most wealthy supporters. In fact, the senator has done minimal amounts of fundraising, having collected only $8 million, mainly through his website, as of June 2015.

But are Sanders’ actions really hinting at a new age of campaign financing or is he simply handicapping himself and ruining his chances at becoming President? It seems both are equally possible at the moment.

With Hillary Clinton, one of the most successful fundraisers of the Democratic party, running against him, Sanders has his work cut out in terms of working with severely limited finances. According to the Washington Post, L.A. lawyer Eric Jacobson is attempting to create a super PAC for Sanders by reaching out to other wealthy individuals. Jacobson feels the Democrat is compromising his ability to compete against other candidates by willingly constricting his flow of funds.

Still, Sanders is doing well for a candidate that has such limited funds, polling second behind Clinton (49.8%) with 24.2%, according to Huffington Post’s Pollster data. His campaign could prove that perhaps it is possible for a politician to be successful without accepting donations from big-money corporations or individuals.

While Sanders may very well be handicapping himself, he is setting a good example for future politicians by not accepting super PACs. His message to both his fellow politicians and regular citizens is that bribery and corruption can be done away with in terms of campaign financing and implementing change.

Ashley Duong is a first-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at alduong1@uci.edu.