Democracy for sale: Where the money comes from for political campaigns

The Center of Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group, predicts the 2012 presidential and congressional elections will cost $5.8 billion, the most expensive on record. Understanding where all this money comes from and how it is used is a fundamental part of a democratic system.

In the current political environment, big corporations flood millions of dollars into the presidential campaign expecting to affect policies in their favor. Elected representatives do a better job obstructing each other’s proposals than finding common grounds to solve the people’s biggest problems. Much needed reforms in tax, health care, education, jobs and immigration continue to be an issue election after election with no solutions in sight.

The democratic process has been diminished into an ideological dispute between two parties that take turns at being in power and spend most of their time chasing cash from fundraisers.
The January 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission put an end to an attempt to regulate “big money” campaign contributions. After the ruling, new Political Action Committees (Super PACs) were created, allowing corporations to pay for political advertisements, which was not permitted before.

Voters that are not well-educated about the candidates and their agendas use other cues to choose their candidates, according to Shauna Reilly, political science professor at Northern Kentucky University.
“Name recognition, party identification and incumbency are some of the things voters use when they don’t know their candidates well,” Reilly said.

Super PACs have spent at least $293 million on television advertisements, according to the Federal Election Commission. Since the beginning of the presidential campaign, two of the most-active Super PACs, Restore Our Future (R) and Priorities USA Action (D), have spent $104.7 million and $34.5 million, respectively.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center shows that nearly half of the people (46 percent) surveyed didn’t know what a Super PAC refers to.
A Super PAC is different from the regular Political Action Committee (PAC). Although both committees raise and spend money to elect and defeat candidates, PACs can give only $5,000 to a candidate per election and receive up to the same amount of money from any individual per year.

A Super PAC cannot make donations directly to a candidate or a political party but it can raise and expend unlimited amounts of money in television advertisements favoring one candidate or another.
The Federal Election Commission, established to enforce campaign finance laws is vague and leaves room for PACs and Super PACs to get away with non-disclosure of their donors’ identities. Nonprofit corporation committees can receive money from Super PACs and are not required to disclose their donors.

People have no way to know who is paying for advertisements they hear and see. Corporations are not people. They are legal entities with profit interests. And they have money, a lot of money. Nonprofit corporations are tax-exempt to promote social welfare, what they are doing though, is providing a shady pathway for the wealthy to donate their money and influence election results without showing their faces.

Political campaigns have put the interests of big corporations’ donors ahead of anything that could make a difference for 46.2 million people living in poverty in the country today, numbers from the 2011 Census.

To regain the principles of a democracy where the ordinary citizen vote counts, changes in the way donations are made to political campaigns are paramount.
Among Americans aware of the Citizens United ruling and its effects in campaign financing, 78 percent said the effects have been negative, Pew’s surveys show.
The Fair Election Now Act is a bipartisan bill that was reintroduced in the Senate and in the House of Representatives in 2011. The bill would allow federal candidates to choose to run for office without relying on large contributions. Candidates would focus on people’s needs instead of allocating their time and energy to attend fundraisers.

The bill could be a solution to a problem affecting the democratic system in our country and Justice Stevens in his dissent opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission wrote, “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”