by Ralph Scharnau
The November 3 federal elections will stand as one of the most momentous in the nation’s history. Not since the 1960s have voters confronted such an array of issues—coronavirus pandemic, heath care, climate change, police misconduct, street protests, racism and sexism, voter suppression, economic doldrums, and a Supreme Court appointment.
These issues have generated fiery partisan debates. Recent public opinion polls also indicate that clear majorities of respondents think that the nation is headed in the wrong direction. The dissatisfaction rate is widespread, hovering between roughly 60 and 80 percent of poll participants.
Looming over the electoral process is the unprecedented amounts of money poured into the races for the presidency and Congress with billionaires often taking a leading role. Campaign spending in the 2020 election cycle will outpace the 2016 race by an estimated factor of 10. Access to money often plays a significant role in determining who runs for office and who is elected.
The amount of money now being spent on political campaigns has created growing skepticism about the integrity of our election system. This is not a new issue. It dates back to the brawling campaigns and political machines of Tammany Hall and the Robber Baron era in the 1880s and 1890s with special interest money bankrolling American political campaigns.
Congress enacted various reforms during the early 1900s, but it was not until 1971 that reformers came up with an alternative to private campaign money. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 required candidates for federal office to disclose their funders and set limits on their spending. And, for the first time, it provided public funding of elections for presidential campaigns.
The idea was to match funds raised by the candidates themselves with public monies in return for candidates agreeing to spending limits. The public funds came from voluntary contributions by individual taxpayers through a check-off on their income tax returns, designating a small donation to public campaign funding for six presidential electoral cycles from 1976 to 1996, public funding worked well for the major party campaigns of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, and their opponents. The availability of public funding encouraged transparency in campaign funding and sharply reduced the influence of wealthy donors.
But the presidential public financing system began to fray during the 2000 campaign. Republican George W. Bush became the first nominee of either major party to pass up public matching funds during the primaries and to rely solely on money raised by his own campaign.
The sheer cost of running for president has risen astronomically since 1976. The costs far exceeded the amount of available public funding. This occurred in part because Congress never established a mechanism to index public financing to the inflation in campaign costs.
A more basic problem was the sharp decline in taxpayer participation in funding the system, from 30% in 1980 to 9% in 2008. For the 2012 general election, the tax return check-off generated only about $80 million, a tiny fraction of the $2.3 billion actually spent on the 2012 presidential campaign. Today, we witness the outsized influence of Super PACs, independent money machines often led by billionaires.
Hope remains for a reasonable, comprehensive and meaningful system of public financing with carefully drawn disclosure rules, reasonable limits on campaign contributions, and stricter enforcement of existing bans on coordination between candidates and super PACs. The struggle to secure fair, public-financed elections will require an ongoing effort
October 29, 2020