The Freedom To Spend
A frequently discussed political issue is the role of money in elections. It seems as though no matter what a candidate does, for any political election, his or her monetary wealth must be touched on by the media. Candidates are criticized for spending too much, spending too little, running too many ads, or not spending enough on advertising. If any inference can be made from these constant reports on the money spent on an election, it is that money is important to the election side of the political process.
Though there is a heated argument over how important spending is to elections, it can be reasonably asserted that money, for its very basic purpose, is required to fund a political campaign, therein lies a problem. Can money play a role in elections without leading to corruption? Is the utilization of one’s wealth for political purposes a right granted by the freedom-defining documents that govern the country or a cheating tool used to “buy” your say in legislation? Valid points support both sides of this argument, making it an often-discussed topic whenever an election rolls around.
Supporters of the freedom to spend or give money in an election have one major argument that they use to back their opinions, and this is the first amendment. In court cases like Buckley v. Valeo (1976) and Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (2010), the advocates of election spending state that spending money is an expression of freedom of speech. Their argument revolves around the idea that candidates have a right to spend money, run ads or political movies, and conduct their campaign without government oversight because interference would be a violation of their first amendment rights. Still, it is difficult to prove the extent of the amendment when the issue they are discussing is not directly mentioned. Even so, how could the issue be mentioned? When the Bill of Rights was written, all a candidate had to do to win an election was offer free alcohol to anyone who would give him his vote. This argument has a few flaws in its stretch application of the first amendment, but is sound as a reason to not limit the amount a candidate can spend to get elected.
The population that believes excessive spending in election to be harmful raises a multitude of valid points as well. The first, and obvious, assertion is that through unlimited spending, candidates are able to “buy” policies through their wealth. This gives an uneven playing field to the candidates without as much funding as their opponents because the candidates are simply “out-spent.” Additionally, wealthier candidates are able to make themselves more visible to voters than candidates who cannot afford as many television ads or radio broadcasts. Voters can’t vote for candidates they cannot see. Supporters of limited election spending also claim that money not only affects elections, but also leaks into the legislative process. Politicians can reward their biggest supporting PACs or wealthy donors with legislative decisions that the donors favor. Legislative decisions suddenly become based on gaining votes rather than making unbiased political calls. These are all warranted concerns that need to be voiced to keep a fair electoral system.
No matter which side someone supports, the persistence of this issue is undeniable. The fact that money in elections was an issue when George Washington was campaigning is evidence of the eternal nature of this debate. It is somewhat paradoxical that the only way to reform this problem, for either side of the argument, is through government legislation, yet the only means of getting somebody into office to put the legislation into effect is by supplying that candidate with monetary support. Because the debate will no doubt continue, the importance of money in elections is, was, and will be an important issue for every election.