U.S. Political Finance: Americans spend more on elections, but they lead from behind

A pile of hundred dollar bills

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Although the U.S. political map turned significantly more red last week, the one unifying color of the midterm elections was green. Nearly $4 billion of green to be precise, given directly to candidates, funneled through political money laundering organizations, and supplied in massive lump sums by a handful of donors. Advocates for limitless money in politics in the U.S. like to say we spend less on elections than potato chips–but this apples to oranges (Doritos to Cheetos?) comparison fails to recognize, among other things, that spending on political campaigns comes from a tiny sliver of the population, while snack food spending is, ironically, more democratic, spread among a vastly larger portion of U.S. citizens. More legitimate is to compare election spending in the U.S. to what is spent by other democracies. When that comparison is made, it is clear that the U.S. is a standout compared to other countries, and not in a way in which we should take pride.

Political spending in the U.S. dwarfs spending by all other countries—even taking into account our relatively large population. In its last general election, India spent $5 billion. That is one billion dollars less than the U.S. spent during its general election in 2012. And when the relative populations of both countries are taken into account (316 million in the US, 1.3 billion in India) even the most rough, back of the envelop calculations show our per capita spending way out of line with that of the world’s largest democracy. Brazil, another large democracy with a population of 200 million, spent $2 billion in its last general election. While the numbers aren’t in for Brazil’s most recent election last month, it is likely spending won’t have jumped to U.S. levels. It is not just the amounts spent on U.S. elections that make the country an outlier compared to the rest of the world, but the way we spend it. The political finance system has been cobbled together in such a way that it actually encourages rampant spending and legalized bribery.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. In 1971, Congress passed a comprehensive campaign finance law that contained contribution and spending limits. But when the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo declared spending limits unconstitutional, it put candidates in the position of limiting what they could receive from donors, but not what they could spend to get elected. The result is that for the next 40 years, there was an arms race for funding, with candidates and elected officials spending at least half an average workday fundraising. The system is as unusual as it is untenable, with only Finland having a similar campaign finance regime.

Not done wreaking havoc, the Supreme Court landed a one-two punch on the American political finance system with its more recent decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon, opening the door to secret and nearly unlimited donations. A number of countries have what on the surface seems to be a similar regime, with no contribution or spending limits, but even as compared to those, the U.S. is unique in a way that drives up the price of our elections. Countries in which there are no contribution or spending limits have other important mechanisms to keep the cost of campaigns down, including free TV time for candidates and limited campaign season. In Germany, for example, last year’s elections for chancellor and all of parliament cost $93 million. That is roughly equivalent to the $94 million spent in Colorado to elect one senator, and millions less than the $108 million spent on the North Carolina Senate race, the most expensive of the 2014 midterms.

How does Germany do it? For starters, campaigns last only six weeks—so even though Germany does not limit the amount of money parties can receive from individuals and corporations, there is simply not enough time to run up huge bills that would require German candidates to solicit massive contributions. In addition, German parties are given free media time. Each party creates just one 90-second ad and the number of times it is run is based on the number of votes the party received in the last election. Yet even with a shorter campaign, fewer ads and far less money, it is unlikely that Germans view their political leaders as somehow less democratically elected than Americans view U.S. leaders.

In the U.S. there is also the unusual spectacle of secret money finding its way into elections. During the midterms, independent groups spent $771 million on elections. Of that, at least $145 million was dark money—contributions that remain hidden from the public, but are almost certainly known to the politicians who are the beneficiaries of the spending. The amount of dark money the U.S. spent in an off year was almost three times as much as the 31 million pounds (about $50 million) Great Britain spent during the entire general election in 2010.

That’s not to say other countries don’t face secret money infiltrating their elections—many countries’ elections may be partially funded by envelops of cash clandestinely handed over to candidates or party leaders. But even among the most corrupt countries such Egypt, such transactions are technically illegal, even if the laws are not enforced. In the U.S., anyone who has the resources and the will to influence elections and elected officials need not risk violating the law with under the table transactions. Instead, they can engage in legalized bribery by funneling money through so-called “social welfare” organizations. Influence peddlers can set up their own nonprofits to pay for election ads, but if that’s too much work, they can take advantage of one of the many dark money organizations already in existence. The Chamber of Commerce, for instance, which spent $32 million on the midterms, has made keeping its donors secret a marketing tactic. As noted by Washington Monthly, “A large part of what the Chamber sells is political cover. For multibillion-dollar insurers, drug makers, and medical device manufacturers who are too smart and image conscious to make public attacks of their own, the Chamber of Commerce is a friend who will do the dirty work. ‘I want to give them all the deniability they need,’ says [the Chamber’s president and CEO Tom] Donohue.”

Democracies outside the U.S. must remain vigilant if they are going to prevent a surfeit of cash from influencing their elections. By the same token, it will take concerted effort to reduce the cost of U.S. campaigns and tamp down the money race. But if we throw up our hands at any attempt to seek solutions, saying it’s too late, there is too much money, we’ll never fix it, than U.S. election spending will continue to run ahead of everyone else, leaving our democracy very much behind.