Understanding who gives money to political campaigns and how campaigns are financed is critically important to being an informed voter and citizen. As we take time to do advocacy for the many issues we care about and doing the important work of building a just world for all – we must strive to enact robust and thoughtful campaign finance reforms. In fact, campaign finance and money in politics is at the root of many of the issues we work on every day.
Unlimited money from unaccountable sources has a corrosive effect on politics. There have been a number of efforts in the past to limit how much money a campaign can receive from donors and efforts are ongoing to eliminate private funding for campaigns and instead have publicly financed campaigns. A number of states worked to enact stricter campaign finance laws that restricted the amount of money a campaign can receive and required that those donations be made public so it was easily tracked – who gave money to whom (check out this resource from the Campaign Finance Institute for tracking individual state's campaign finance laws).
However, in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United vs. FEC that corporations can give unlimited money to campaigns because money is essentially a form of free speech. This case favoring corporate interests makes it so the voice of the citizen is drowned out by the cash of the corporation. It also invalidated many of the laws that had been in place in states working to restrict corporate money in politics. The lack of accountability and oversight of funding for campaigns means the corporate interests often are favored over those of the voting public. This isn’t how democracy should work. In addition, the people who are spending their money on a candidate is often masked by Political Action Committees. These PACs provide ways to disguise who exactly is behind the financing of a candidate. These layers of secrecy and lack of transparency obfuscate the true players in an election.
Navigating these murky waters can be challenging and working to find out what corporate interests are bolstering candidates and politicians is a little bit like being a detective. You have to follow the clues (money) and become a corporate cash gumshoe. What’s important to keep in mind is learning how to discern for yourself why a candidate or politician has a particular stance - this can help you determine who to vote for and also what issues to advocate on. For example, if a candidate comes out strongly in favor of ice-cream for all, is it because they think that is good for their constituents, or are they being supported by the ice-cream makers? Did the ice-cream makers help put out damaging ads for the candidate’s opponent or make a big campaign contribution? While this is a made-up example, there are a lot of real world examples of politicians receiving money in exchange for their support for a law that could help that corporation or special interest group. We can’t make up your mind for you – but we DO want to give you tools to do that yourself.
Here are some helpful steps to take if you’re concerned about the effect of money in politics:
- Learn about campaign finance – be a discerning voter and take the time to learn about the candidates and the reasons behind their positions.
- Question candidates and politicians about campaign financing. Ask them what their plans are to improve campaign finance and the impact of money in politics and if they accept corporate donations and support.
- Work toward reform. Learn about the campaign finance reforms happening in your state or in Congress and talk to people about supporting those measures.
It feels insurmountable at times, but there are a lot of people and organizations involved in campaign finance working to make information available on who accepts big corporate support as well as championing reforms.
Check out these resources to help with your sleuthing:
The Center for Response Politics is a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks money in politics that shows unbiased data to votes on where money is being spent in politics. Their goal is to produce and disseminate peerless data and analysis on money in politics to inform and engage Americans, champion transparency, and expose disproportionate or undue influence on public policy. You can use their site to look up how much has been raised and spent in congressional races as well as who is contributing to campaigns.
This is a 50 state database of campaign spending, lobbying registration and other money in politics disclosure tracking. They have substantive profiles on candidates and issues, insightful reports and reliable data for all 50 states.
Maplight aims to empower voters by providing data on money in politics and advocating for reforms that will improve transparency in government.
The Sunlight Foundation is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses civic technologies, open data, policy analysis and journalism to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent to all.
Katie Adams is the UCC Domestic Policy Advocate