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Changing America's campaign spending laws

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Is America’s election financing system corrupt? Should corporations be able to give financial support to candidates? Is spending free speech? Can/should anything be done?

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These are just a few of the questions Common Cause Minnesota executive director Jeremy Schroeder addressed in his lecture, “Campaign Finance and the Supreme Court,” to the Humanists of Minnesota at Field Community School in south Minneapolis, January 18, 2014. His legalistic presentation started with the premise that America basically needs “a system change” because of the large amounts of special interest money that block congressional consideration of “policies that make common sense.”

Schroeder identified a list of campaign spending laws going back to President Theodore Roosevelt that were intended to curb special interests, particularly labor unions and corporations, of their financial abilities to influence elections. Over time, the effectiveness of such legislation has been systematically undermined by a lack of enforcement funding, the “money is speech” mantra of First Amendment rights advocates, and Supreme Court decisions in cases like Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission.

The upshot has been the public’s cynical and partisan acceptance “of what money can buy” in today’s elections. For example, just 159 donors contributed 60% of SuperPAC funding to candidates in the 2012 elections. The impact such funding has may be mixed, as in the Coralville, Iowa municipal elections, but unrestrained contributions have severely compromised the federal government’s ability to level the playing field or regulate dishonesty in elections at all levels.

Some experts like Supreme Court associate justice Antonin Scalia regard unfettered campaign spending as a First Amendment right. While “the more speech the better” sounds good in the abstract, corporate contributions from general treasury funds often are hidden or anonymous which circumvents campaign disclosure laws designed to protect the integrity of the election process.

What’s to be done? Deviating from the lead of 16 other states calling for a constitutional convention, Common Cause Minnesota is asking the Minnesota legislature to pass a resolution calling for a Constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case. While such a declaration would not resolve the First Amendment dilemma posed by campaign spending, Schroeder says it would force federal legislators to address the transparency issue in elections and make corporate political contributions harder to hide. If nothing else, publicizing the issue would alert people that "there is a problem" and alleviate the cynicism some government officials have fostered in the American voting public.

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