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My Two Reforms Will Help

Banning Soft Money Isn't the Answer

by Kim Alexander for, October 1999

The problem with money in American politics is that it's something like an air bubble underneath a carpet -- if you step on it in one place, it just pops up somewhere else. That's because the courts have repeatedly affirmed that everyone in our capitalist democracy has a constitutionally-protected, First Amendment right to speak with their dollars.

Trying to get special interest money out of American politics is a dead end. There are always going to be people who want to subvert the political process for their own personal gain. Attempts to limit the influence of money in politics by imposing campaign finance restrictions often result in creating loopholes and unintended consequences. We pass contribution limits, and we get independent expenditures. We enact a federal ban on corporate contributions, and we get corporate PACs. We establish public financing and spending limits for presidential elections, and we get soft money.

What can we do to limit the influence of money in politics? The Internet Age has ushered in a whole new crop of solutions that are practical, effective, and, most importantly, constitutional. Through the Internet, we can accomplish two important reforms: Reduce the need for money in politics; and better expose the influence of money in politics.

The need for money in politics is driven by the cost of communication. It costs a lot of money to communicate with and educate voters. Television advertising and direct mail are the most prevalent communication tools employed in campaigns, and both are quite expensive. If a congressional candidate wanted to send a letter to every registered voter in his district, the postage alone would cost $100,000. A statewide candidate in California would have to spend $2 million to make sure every voter in the state saw her TV ad. The problem has only worsened in recent years. Candidates are relying less on free media exposure, as the news media grows more focused on profits than public service. In fact, a USC study found that TV stations in 5 major California markets devoted less than 1 percent of local news coverage to the 1998 gubernatorial race.

The high cost of campaigning for public office can be reduced by promoting more effective and less expensive ways to educate voters. The Internet serves two functions here: it gives candidates an affordable way to get their message out; and it gives groups like the California Voter Foundation an affordable way to provide voters with new, non-partisan information resources.

Encouraging voters to be proactive rather than passive also helps reduce candidates' information dissemination costs. Encouraging the news media to increase and improve coverage of politics can also reduce a candidate's dependence on expensive, paid advertising. Practical reforms such as free air time, reduced postage for political mailings and free candidate statements in ballot pamphlets will also reduce the amount of money candidates need to raise in order to get their message out and effectively compete on the political playing field.

At the same time, the money that is, and likely always will be, present in the political system can be better exposed to the public by requiring the electronic filing of campaign finance disclosure reports and by publishing those reports on the Internet -- what I call "digital sunlight." Internet disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures is making the role of money in politics more transparent to the public, and will make politicians think more carefully about who they take money from, how they spend it and whether their votes and actions appear to be influenced by those contributions.

These two reforms -- more affordable communication tools for candidates, and Internet disclosure of money in politics -- will not solve all the inequities in our political process. But they are constitutional, practical and effective, and as such, would be a good place to start shaping a political culture where people, rather than money, have the greatest influence.

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This page was first published on February 12, 2004 | Last updated on January 27, 2006
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