Corruption of U.S. Elections: Is there a solution?
The way that U.S. elections are funded is, by now, well-known to be bribery… legalized bribery. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have allowed for this corruption, ruling that corporations and special interest groups can contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns.
Supporters of this system argue that money is protected as free speech under the 1st Amendment.
Opponents argue that this system silences the majority of people, infringing on their free speech, by allowing the wealthy to have greater influence.
Although elected officials are supposed to represent all of their constituents (voters), the current system inevitably causes a large disparity in the amount of influence that corporations and the wealthiest people in the country have over politicians.
As a result, opponents point out how this system corrupts the democratic process of U.S. elections, causing politicians to protect the interests of corporations and special interests above their own constituents.
While some argue that our current system of funding elections is too corrupt to change, there are measures that are used to help mitigate the crises, as well as solutions that could be implemented, but all are hotly debated.
- Now more than at any time in our nation’s history, corporations and the wealthy have the power to influence public opinion in their favor and, therefore, laws that govern our communities. This is largely the result of three U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the last 50 years, centering their arguments about our campaign finance system around free speech under the 1st Amendment. Learn more
- There are only two ways to solve the corrupting influence of money in US elections. There are a few ways to help mitigate the effects, although they are not solutions. Each one is hotly debated in terms of how much support it has, how likely it is to be done, and how much it will actually make a difference. Learn more
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Now more than at any time in our nation’s history, corporations and the wealthy have the power to influence public opinion in their favor and, therefore, laws that govern our communities. This is largely the result of three U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the last 50 years, centering their arguments about our campaign finance system around free speech under the 1st Amendment.
The three Supreme Court decisions summarized below have allowed corporations to have the same rights as a person, but only when it comes to giving money to a campaign.
This allows corporations to influence public opinion, as well as politicians. As a result, this influences legislation, regardless of what is in the best interest of the public, because of the financial advantage corporations have over individuals.
The Supreme Court decisions responsible for our current campaign finance system are 1) Buckley v. Valeo; 2) First Nat’l Bank of Boston v. Bellotti; and 3) Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. 1 | 2 | 3
- In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Court ultimately ruled that candidates, groups, and individuals can spend as much money as they want (unlimited expenditures).
- This decision established the precedence that money equals speech. The more money you have, the more speech you have.
- In First National Bank of Boston v. Belotti (1978), the Court ruled that corporations have a 1st Amendment right to contribute money to state ballot initiative campaigns.
- This did not affect federal law, but the decision was used in the next major decision often referred to as “Citizens United.”
- In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Court ruled that nonprofit and for-profit corporations, as well as unions and other organizations, have the right to spend as much money as they want (unlimited expenditures).
In the dissenting opinions (the judges who voted against the decisions above), two running themes appeared. These judges argued:
- Corporations are not individual people and the first amendment does not apply to them.
- By allowing unlimited expenditures (and then allowing corporations that ability), it could and would significantly sway public opinion on issues, but not necessarily in the public interest because corporations are based on profit motive, not public interest.
At the heart of this entire argument is the First Amendment. Specifically, in two main areas:
- Does the First Amendment apply only to citizens, or also to entities (corporations, unions, etc.)?
- Should the First Amendment be restricted in terms of political speech by not allowing individuals, nor entities with significantly more financial resources, the ability to give their opinion a far larger voice? Does this affect the playing field? Does this affect democracy?
There are only two ways to solve the corrupting influence of money in US elections. There are a few ways to help mitigate the effects, although they are not solutions. Each one is hotly debated in terms of how much support it has, how likely it is to be done, and how much it will actually make a difference.
All laws (local, state, federal) must abide by the US Constitution and US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decisions. This means that any law concerning campaign finance reform must respect the three Court decisions that have permitted legalized bribery. This prevents any law from being able to actually solve the problem.
As a result, there are only two ways to solve the problem of corrupted US elections: 1) Amend the U.S. Constitution, or 2) Overturn the SCOTUS decisions.
There are only two ways to overturn a SCOTUS decision:
- A new SCOTUS decision
- An Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
There are only two ways/paths to get an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and both are roughly a 3-step process:
- via Congress
- via Convention (aka “States Convention” or “Article V Convention” because this is described in Article V of the US Constitution)
Main Arguments for and against each path:
The are other legal measures that some argue can help to mitigate the effects of corrupted elections, but due to the fact that all measures/laws must adhere to the US Constitution and Court decisions, they are not solutions.
- Disclosure and Reporting Requirements 1 | 2
- Provide transparency by publishing the sources of a candidate’s election fund.
- All 50 states mandate some form of disclosure and reporting of these contributions.
- Main Argument against this measure: Who people and organizations contribute to should be private so as to protect those people from public scrutiny.
- Contribution Limits 1 | 2
- Limits on the amount of money any group or individual can contribute to a campaign
- Second most common means of regulating money in elections
- Has grabbed the most attention, with recent Supreme Court cases bringing contribution limits to the forefront of the campaign finance debate.
- Main Argument against this measure: Putting limits on the total amount of money an individual can contribute during an election cycle violates the First Amendment.
- Publicly Funded Elections 1 | 2
- Candidates can accept public funds to conduct their campaign instead of privately financing their campaign.
- If a candidate opts into this program, they make certain promises to not raise private funds, and can only spend an amount established by the municipality, state, or federal government.
- This approach mirrors the federal public financing option, which was instituted by the FEC in 1974.
- Main Argument against this measure: Candidates cannot be required to use this option, so if their opponents choose to do privately-funded campaigns, they can easily outspend the publicly-funded campaigns.
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