David Border has an opinion piece in the Washington Post praising the Supreme Court for upholding the constitutional right of groups, such as Wisconsin Right to Life, to run ‘issue ads’ close to elections. As Broder points out, the ruling will almost certainly significantly reduce the effectiveness of any campaign finance law.
I share Broder’s support for free political speech and his general opposition to spending restrictions, but I object to his alternative remedy. At the end of his article, Broder endorses a different way to reduce the influence of ‘Big Money’ on elections; he suggests that
a system of public finance — taxpayer-subsidized campaigns — would enable candidates to cope with the inevitable intrusion of outside voices into their races.
I have no doubt that taxpayer subsidized campaigns would help candidates deal with “outside voices.” The problem is that giving candidates public money would necessarily increase incumbents’ ability to ignore all outside voices, including those of the voters.
Public campaign financing will always favor incumbents, at the very least the two incumbent political parties. For one, it will always be incumbents who write the public financing laws. More importantly, unless we give public money to every yahoo who wants to run for office, money would have to go to those who already have significant support, i.e. incumbents or candidates from incumbent parties. The last thing the United States needs is more deeply entrenched incumbents; we have only two political parties and they have not changed since the Civil War.
More generally, campaign finance reform fails to address the root problem of the influence of money in elections. The objectionable influence of money in elections is that access to money can completely change the outcome of elections, and therefore policy, without affecting the voting outcome appreciably. If some rich business man managed to change the minds of 65% of voters, convincing them to vote for a candidate he supported, few people would object when that candidate won. The problem with the current system is that, often, the rich businessman may get the candidate he supports elected without convincing a large fraction of voters. I put most of the blame for this feature of the current system on the electoral formula.
The U.S. uses a winner-take-all electoral formula, meaning whichever candidate wins in a district gets all the benefits and political power regardless of how close the election was. Because U.S. congressional elections are winner-take-all, in elections that are close, proportionally small changes of votes can completely change an election outcome. To understand clearly why this is, consider a winner-take-all election with 99 voters and two candidates, Reese and Carly. Fifty of the voters support Reese and 49 support Carly, a very close election. Reese is the leading candidate right now, but if any one of the 50 voters who support Reese gives their support to Carly, she will win instead. The outcome of the election is very sensitive to small changes in voting because all it takes is one voter to change their mind to reverse the result of the election. Organized groups who stand to gain from the election of a particular candidate have strong incentives to spend money to convince voters to vote for the candidate they support. Close elections in winner-take-all voting often have unstable election results, and “Big Money” can try to take advantage of that by trying to change the minds of a small fraction of voters or trying to motivate supporters, which make up a small fraction of voters to vote.
With this in mind, a better solution to the disproportionate influence of money in elections is to abandon the winner-take-all electoral formula and adopt a more proportional way of distributing voting power in the Senate and House. I will suggest Direct Representation, but Proportional Representation is a close substitute. When legislative votes are distributed proportionally to the fraction of voter support, a small change in voter support will only change the distribution of legislative votes by a proportionally small amount. In order to change the outcome of an election significantly, a political group must change the minds of significant fraction of voters. Proportional electoral formulas reduce the objectionable influence of wealthy interests on elections by producing significant changes in election outcomes only when they correspond to significant changes in voter opinion, so organized groups who want to influence an election must spend much more money in order to affect the results of an election significantly. Furthermore, that influence on election results should be much less objectionable because voters must legitimately change their minds. Reduced special interest influence is just one more reason to support proportional distributions of legislative voting power.