On April 2, I felt a great disturbance in the Internet. It’s as if as if millions of liberal voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. That’s how I knew the Supreme Court had made its decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission—which, if you didn’t know, was about donation caps in elections.
In a divided opinion Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court voted to strike down part of the Federal Election Campaign Act which set limits on how much in total individuals could spend in election campaigns. The cap meant that a single person could not donate more than $2,600 per candidate per election ($5,200 for primary and general) in any federal elections cycle up to a total of 18 candidates. With the striking of that provision, individuals can now spend up to $2,600 on as many candidates as they want.
Cue the shitstorm.
The gist of the fear and complaint is that each time the SCOTUS strikes down a campaign finance reform law, rich people control our elections more and more. In fact, USAToday opens with that very premise in its coverage on the topic, writing, “The Supreme Court took another step Wednesday toward giving wealthy donors more freedom to influence federal elections.”
Uh, okay. Citation, please?
When getting your panties in a bunch about whether or not striking down campaign finance reform laws actually does allow rich people to control elections, you might want to do some fact-checking. I have written on campaign finance reform quite a few times in the past, and I am continually shocked by the amount of misinformation and flat out lies that come out on this issue. When Citizens United came down, President Obama himself said that the decision would “open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections”—which was factually incorrect.
So, to the question of whether the amount of money influence elections, it’d be helpful to separate fact from fiction. Fortunately, Jason Brennan over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians has a great post on this and has, I assume, looked at the data that’s kept behind fancy JSTOR paywalls. The short version?:
There are a huge number of empirical papers that try to test, from a wide variety of angles using a wide variety of methods and data, both the Money Makes Winners and Money Shapes Winners theses. The results are pretty ambiguous. There are quite a few papers finding an effect, though not usually a huge one.
So, whether or not money corrupts elections is, at best, undetermined. Folks should probably just chill out on that one.
But what do campaign donation limitations accomplish? That, at least from a philosophical point, we can answer pretty clearly. Consider the kinds of things that we consider, both through common sense and by law, to be free speech: flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades; Pornography, running nude through the TSA, and signs of “aborted fetuses;” a Facebook like, a satirical website, or a tweet. All of these things are things that we can and do use to express our ideas and support politicians.
Why not money? Donating money to a cause is a way of expressing that you agree with what that person or cause is doing. To limit someone’s ability to donate is essentially putting a cap on how much speech they can have. And that is not acceptable.
We live and operate within a legal and ethical framework wherein if a government goes to limit someone’s rights, it has to have a good reason. In the case of spending in elections, that reasoning is not at all substantiated, yet the violation is clear. When writing in a dissenting opinion, Justice Steven Breyer said that the decision would create “huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform.”
To that I say: Good.