Putting the Checkrein on Campaign Spending

The 2012 election was historic and notable for a number of reasons, not least of which was the sheer amount of money spent on it, which was truly mindboggling. Karl Rove’s bad bets nothwithstanding, a lot of organisations and individuals poured funds into the election on a federal, state, and regional level, and some of them got very good returns on their investments. Whether those returns were good for voters, however, is an entirely different matter. What is clear is that voters lack that kind of financial clout, and thus are at an inherent disadvantage when faced by a political system where torrents of money determine who is elected.

Campaign financing is something the United States has been struggling with, and it’s becoming a more and more acute problem. Despite multiple attempts from both sides of the aisle to bring some kind of order to money in politics, money plays a bigger role in politics every election cycle, and shows no sign of stopping. With the creation of multiple vehicles for funneling funds into campaigns, it’s become even easier to spend vast amount on an election, if you have the money to spend, and some groups definitely do.

Those groups are often not operating in the interests of the average voter. While public service groups like Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, and similar organisations can and do contribute to campaign finance through political arms (thereby retaining nonprofit status for the parent organisation), other groups contributing to politics are companies like Monsanto, and individuals like the Koch brothers, all with the goal of maintaining the status quo and keeping politicians favourable to corporations, not individuals. These lavish donations go to candidates who will take a soft line on environmental regulations, who won’t pressure corporations to pay taxes, who won’t fight to protect workers and to ensure access to health services and other basic needs for all residents of the US.

The 2012 election cycle was the most expensive in US history, and the 2016 election will be just as bad, if not worse, unless we manage to get campaign finance under control. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent with the purpose of promoting specific causes and candidates, including of course Barack Obama, and a sizeable chunk of that money came from so-called dark donors, those with identities obscured through the donation process.

Campaign donation was once open and transparent. You could track how much individuals and companies donated and campaigns had to open their books to allow people to inspect them. Being able to follow the money is a very basic way to follow a campaign and to make decisions about how to vote, because voters might care about who, and what, is behind a given name or measure on the ballot. I’m inclined to view an environmental measure unfavorably when I see it’s supported by Georgia Pacific, Monstanto, and Dow Chemical, for instance, and I’d consider that funding when reading the measure, researching it, and deciding how I wanted to vote.

Without this critically needed transparency, it’s difficult for voters to know where money is coming from and how it might be influencing their vote. And without checks on campaign spending, voters are saturated in election propaganda, much of it negative. 2012 was a very dark year, and a lot of misinformation was distributed in the course of campaigning. People in certain target areas were inundated in a nonstop barrage of political messaging, much of it conflicting and unhelpful. Intrusive political activity spilled over into every aspect of people’s lives.

And some of that was very precisely fine-tuned and targeted. The Obama campaign in particular excelled at social media and used a variety of tools to get to know the people who used its sites and applications, and to follow people as they moved through various websites and across online media. The result was carefully targeted advertising encouraged both to push people in a specific direction, and to encourage them to promote the campaign to their friends. This strategy was in use by a number of other campaigns as well, and it’s one that’s going to be more common in 2016, as the tools for tracking people and tailoring advertising are only going to get better.

Of course, that means that people are also going to experience a tremendous violation of privacy, because with tracking comes the collection of data about where people go online, how long they spend there, what they purchase and interact with, and who they consider friends. All of this information is incredibly valuable to advertisers, including political campaigns, and it creates a fascinating and terrifying loop with companies spending big money on political campaign. As they develop voter profiles using intrusive methods people may not be aware of to track them across the Internet, they can use the same meticulously compiled data to create targeted commercial advertising that considers not just Internet history but political values.

Resistance to campaign finance reform is no surprise. In the arms race of political campaigns, no one wants to be at a disadvantage, and people want as much money as possible available for their campaigns. There’s a natural fear from politicians who worry that races might be difficult or impossible without substantial financial backing, and every time campaign finance reform hits Congress, it gets so watered down, twisted, and corrupted that it may as well be pointless.

Whether this Congress can buck that trend and generate meaningful reform in time for the 2014 midterm elections remains to be seen, and it’s safe to say that once the 2014 Congress is seated, it’s going to be well-nigh impossible to push through reform, because all eyes will be on the Presidency, and money will be no object when it comes for scrabbling for that particular political prize.