04 January 2011

Voting with Dollars: Too much, too little or just wrong?

A coalition of liberal lobbies and pressure groups, along with the League of Woman Voters, has released a report on donations for the 2010 elections in New York State. "Capital Investment$ 2010" details how much money candidates received and how much the most generous individuals gave while decrying an electoral process "underwritten by the wealthy and powerful" that implicitly minimizes the influence of the less wealthy and least powerful. It refutes stereotypes linking wealth with Republicanism, noting that Democrats raked in more donations than Republicans -- though it should be noted that last years numbers are skewed by Carl Paladino having largely financed his Republican gubernatorial campaign out of his own pocket. Certain details are interesting, e.g. that the real estate and construction sector was the most generous among business interests, except to Democratic legislative candidates, who got the largest piece of their money, as a whole, from the health care sector.

The authors are more interested in denouncing a state of affairs in which New Yorkers can give more money to a legislative candidate than they can give to a candidate for Congress. Across the board, it appears, ceilings on campaign donations are higher in the Empire State than they are for federal races. For the authors, this inevitably increases the influence of the biggest donors, upon whom candidates grow more dependent. This is particularly bad because business donors and wealthy individuals donate, the report claims, to advance their own private interests, while smaller donors allegedly give according to their agreement with candidates on important issues.

A range of remedies are proposed, from tightening limits on individual donations to adopting a system of "voluntary public financing" of election campaigns. In practice, the latter will mean offering matching funds to candidates who choose to regulate their financing according to state guidelines. The authors claim that such a system, which has been in place for some years in New York City, increases citizen participation in the form of small donations while levelling the playing field enough for more than the normal number of incumbents to lose elections. There's an air of capitulation to the report, since it appears to concede the point that donating money to candidates is an essential form of political participation tantamount to a First Amendment right. Rather than reduce the extent to which candidates must grub for money, the authors and their sponsors simply want to encourage donations by working-class people by making their donations appear less insignificant. Whether anyone should feel that donating money is necessary to elect good candidates or sustain democracy itself is never questioned. Rather, it is taken for granted on the unwritten assumption that any candidacy depends on TV advertising. The TV moguls impose a toll on electoral politics, and their right to do so goes unchallenged in the Capital Investment$ report. The obligation to pay the toll imposes a duty, disguised as a right in some discourse, to donate as well as vote. The system won't be reformed when more people are encouraged, or pressured to donate, but when candidates and parties feel less pressure to beg for funds. Limiting the amounts anyone or any institution can donate doesn't solve the real problem. Solving that will mean resolving the confusion of money and speech on several levels, and in particular resolving whether the sellers' market of political advertising is truly consistent with the objectives of the First Amendment and electoral politics as a whole. A report on that subject might be more worth reading than the one at hand.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As long as the people with money make the rules, they will do nothing to upset their status quo. The only way currently to get money out of politics is to get the wealthy, big business and special interests out of politics. Sort of a catch-22 here, I suspect.