Sunday, October 15, 2006

Campaign Finance: Equality Cannot be Restricted

Campaign financing has gotten out of control. In the 2004 US Presidential election, George W. Bush spent $367,228,801 and John Kerry spent $326,236,288. For both candidates, that entailed spending more than $5 per voter. Such wanton and indiscriminate spending occurs for one reason: candidates are able to spend such huge amounts on their campaigns. Indeed, if they did not, they would be drowned out by their more free-spending opponents. But such spending allows the more wealthy to exert their influence and thus receive more widespread support than less wealthy but perhaps more qualified candidates.

The Federal Election Campaign Act 1971 initiated campaign reform that placed legal limits on campaign contributions. The act stipulated that candidates must disclose sources of campaign contributions and campaign expenditure. It also introduced public financing of campaigns but such funding would be available to candidates only if they accept limits on campaign expenditure. For candidates who have enough campaign funding, and do not need public financing, there is no incentive to accept such public financing. Thus, such rich candidates must not abide by any limits in campaign expenditure, while other less wealthy candidates, who must accept public financing, are entitled to limit their spending.

While such campaign finance reform certainly contributes to more transparency in campaign contributions and expenditure, it also effectively weeds out those not capable of raising enough funds. Arthur M. Okun, a notable economist, states that: “public financing of campaigns for the Congress and the Presidency is an indispensable ingredient in any satisfactory recipe for reform.” But must the taxpayer really pay for candidates that he does not support? Of course not, and thus public financing is both impractical and morally indefensible. Okun goes on to state that “society must erect a sign that clearly says ‘no trespassing’ on the right of universal suffrage.” And with this statement, I completely agree with Mr. Okun.

Yet Okun contradicts himself. We must, according to Okun, curtail one freedom (that to spend money as we see fit) with another (that to participate in fair elections.) And indeed, does public financing really ensure a fair distribution of campaign finance? Surely loopholes will be uncovered, and corrupt politicians will be able to exercise their support for certain candidates without regard to individual equality.

Instead, a universal limit on campaign spending must be instituted, which, while not limiting the distribution of information to voters, allows all candidates to participate fairly in an election, regardless of personal wealth or lobbying capability. Such a limit would also prevent unscrupulous lobbying activities during campaigns, such as those that lobbyist Jack Abramoff participated in. Is such a limit a restriction on personal freedom? Yes, for those running for office, and perhaps those wishing to support a certain candidate. The freedom that it ensures for millions of others, however, allows it to be defensible, and, indeed, necessary.

The Constitution outlines explicitly that every American, regardless of race, sex, or personal wealth, has an equal right to vote. That right has been violated. And in order to restitute it, action must be taken in order to ensure equality in campaigns. Such action should not include limitations on voters’ rights, and thus should entail universally employed measures which contribute to equality without curtailing the freedom to choose.