It’s an open secret that elections in the United States are as much affected by money as they are by votes. A mediocre candidate with healthy funding is nearly always more likely to win out over a strong candidate without the tools to get their message out.
During the Trump vs. Clinton race, over $4.4 billion was spent on television ads alone. Even though 2016 was an exception to the rule, with Donald Trump spending less than Hillary Clinton but eventually winning out, many other candidates who might have changed the outcome of the race were buried in a pile of super-PAC cash.
The letters PAC stand for political action committee. These groups have been around since the 1940s, promoting their candidate and the ideas that go with that candidate.
When the first campaign finance laws were passed in the 1970s, PACs suddenly became important. That’s because they were allowed to donate far greater sums to political campaigns than singular individuals. So they raised the funds from their members and sent wads of cash to their candidates.
The modern era has seen these PACs receive a steroid injection. The 2010 Supreme Court decision on Citizens United allows these groups to pull millions of dollars from singular contributing members. Jeb Bush didn’t even make it into the final show in 2016 and his super PAC generated $103 million dollars.
But what if you’re not a Bush or a Clinton? Is it fair to allow celebrity politicians access to nearly limitless funding when their competition simply hasn’t got the means?
While it might seem like the way to level the playing field is to make donation illegal, it’s not likely that will ever happen. Passing laws that dictate how groups or individuals can fund a candidate just leads to more work-arounds, so what can we do to make things fair?
One popular idea is to enforce reporting from super PACs more strictly. Currently, these committees only need to divulge information about who their lenders are and how much they donated on a quarterly basis in general election years and on a semi-annual basis in off years.
If you’re a high-profile donor affiliated with an organization that might benefit from a handful of new laws or repeals, it’s not hard to know when to make your contribution. And so it goes that these shady lenders continue under the radar while voters who don’t know any better are buttered up by the hype machine those PAC dollars fund.
Another change that would have a massive effect on America’s elections would be to return to a system where individuals can contribute as much as they want.
At first it may seem as though this would further deflate the hopes of third-party candidates, but in reality, an out-of-left-field candidate with a few wealthy supporters could actually garner more attention using this system.
With wealthy backers available to fans of many different political perspectives, an unregulated election season could see Hollywood performers throw extravagant fundraisers to match the contributions of big business.
It’s important to remember what candidates are buying with all this money. Your vote. When it all boils down, the only thing all those billions of dollars are going to is what you mark on your ballot when Election Day comes.
A revised system that discourages the use of super PACs and empowers all those with a cause to seek the public’s attention would be a huge step in the right direction, but for it to have an impact voter turnout would have to increase overall.
Some states are already implementing measures to encourage this. If you’re living in one, good for you. If not, make your voice heard. That vote is worth more than you think!
Editor's note: This guest post was written by Kate Harveston, blogger for Only Slightly Biased, and the views expressed may not necessarily represent those of The Centrist Project.