Money Talks: Who’s Fighting for Campaign Finance Reform?
Jill Lepore, The New Yorker – “I will be the first president in modern history to be outspent in his re-election campaign,” Barack Obama predicted in an e-mail sent to supporters on June 26th, urging potential donors to pony up before the end of the month. Yesterday, the Obama campaign announced that it had raised seventy-one million dollars in June, thirty-five million dollars less than the Romney campaign’s hundred and six million. The saddest part of this news isn’t that the Obama campaign is likely to be outspent; it’s that the Obama campaign has no position on the problem of money in elections.
The campaign’s line—“do the math”—is that Romney donors write big checks while Obama supporters more or less pitch in what coins they can find in the kitchen coffee can. “Through the primaries, we raised almost three-quarters of our money from donors giving less than $1,000, while Mitt Romney’s campaign raised more than three-quarters of its money from individuals giving $1,000 or more.” It’s a reasonable point, but it sure doesn’t amount to a critique of the idea that whoever can raise the most money wins.
Campaigns used not to cost so much.
The problem with most efforts at ending corrupt elections is that as soon as you plug one hole, you find another leak. As I recounted in an essay in the magazine in 2008, urgent and impassioned calls for ending the practice whereby parties and candidates supplied ballots—and, very often, paid voters to cast them—began in the eighteen-forties. Opponents of reform argued that telling candidates and parties they couldn’t print ballots was an infringement of the freedom of speech. This struggle lasted for decades. What’s known as the Australian ballot system—in which the government supplies the ballots—wasn’t accomplished, nationally, until the election of 1896. But that election also marked the birth of the modern campaign-finance system—one in which campaigns are chiefly funded by corporations.