Money in the Electoral Process

Lots of people are looking for work right now. Most will have to spend some amount of money on resumes, travel to and from interviews, and a host of other items to help land their next job. If you are one of those individuals looking for employment how much are you willing to spend to get hired? Let’s assume you are looking for a job that pays $50,000 a year, plus benefits. Would you shell out $500 to get the job? $1,000? $5,000? How about $500,000?

Sound absurd, right? Not if your next job is a member of Congress. The average Representative and Senator earns $174,000 a year. Yet, in order to get that salary the typical member of the House will spend over $1,000,000 and a successful Senator will have paid over $6,000,000 for the right to earn $174,000. Their challenger will have spent the same amount of money, or even more, and be left without a paycheck. To be fair, House members are elected every two years, so in reality they are earning almost $300,000 and Senators, on a six-year term, earn almost $900,000. Still, would you pay three to six times your average salary to land your next job? 

The amount of money candidates spend to get elected to Congress is just one indication of how out of balance our electoral process has become. Money has been and always will be part of the political process. Wealth and power go hand and hand even in a democracy. The level of influence that money has in the political process is something that we the people have some control over. At various times in our national history we have reformed the way candidates are selected and how elections are organized. United States Senators used to be elected by state legislatures, now they are chosen directly by the citizens they represent. The influence of political machines and backroom deal making was curtailed through Progressive Era reforms. Women, African-Americans, and people without property all demanded and won the right to be part of the electoral process. It is time once again to take control of our political process and bring balance to the way we elect those who serve us. This will require us to address the way money is used in the electoral process.

What does a balanced electoral process look like? First, it places a premium on the common good. The amount of money that is required to compete for elected office, especially on the national level, often places candidates in an unwinnable situation. While they receive donations from thousands of contributors the bulk of the money comes from a small number of influential individuals. “Bundlers” are able to harness their networks of friend and family and deliver large sums of money to a candidate. PAC’s and corporations likewise raise hundreds of thousands of dollars that candidates need to win elections. This money is never given without strings attached. Big contributors want something for their money. Elected officials, of both parties, cast votes with the interests of major givers in mind. What is best for the majority of citizens matters less than what is necessary to satisfy the desires of those who paid for the lawmaker to be elected to office. Yet these same politicians must go back to their constituents and convince them that they are working hard on their behalf. Little wonder that the approval rating for Congress is so low. People want someone who is going to truly represent them, but the amount of money needed to run for office weeds out any candidate that cannot appease wealthy individuals and corporations.

If we place real, hard limits on what candidates can spend, not raise but spend, we can make it possible for elected officials to focus on the common good. This may well require a Constitutional amendment in order to withstand the scrutiny of a Supreme Court that has given candidates a green light to raise as much money as they can. Even a Constitutional amendment will not prevent special interests from finding ways to gain influence in the halls of power. Yet, by reducing the amount that candidates can spend on their campaign we can shift the focus from money to policy. The candidate with the best ideas, not the most money to spend, might actually have a chance.

Which brings us to the second mark of a balanced electoral process – identifying and encouraging candidates with a vision for how to solve our problems rather than an ability to raise money. It is possible that a person can have both a vision and be a skilled fundraiser. Yet, too often our current electoral process places a premium on a candidate who has the ability to cultivating a steady stream of major donors at the expense of having a real plan to deal with the complex and serious problems that confront our nation. It does not matter how dedicated or gifted a politician is about crafting policy that advances the common good; if they cannot raise money they will not get very far. 

We are well aware that in our media orientated society ideas get pushed aside in place of sound bites. Limiting the amount of money candidates can spend will not alter the fact that complex arguments about the common good will still be reduced to 10 second video clips for mass consumption. Nor will electoral reform ensure that the best candidate rather than the most telegenic one gets elected. However, if we don’t act to restore some balance, and act soon, our democracy may be forever lost, replaced by an oligarchy that can elect whomever they wish.

Share your thoughts below about how we can balance freedom of speech (the main argument for not regulating campaign contributions or spending) with the need to reduce the power of money in our electoral process,

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