The Federal Election Commission has approved “SuperPAC,” comedian Stephen Colbert’s new political group that can accept contributions from people, corporations, and unions to campaign for political candidates and causes. “SuperPAC” will not have to report its proceeds, and will air television ads explicitly urging people to vote for a specific candidate.
This 5-1 vote by the FEC is nothing but another damaging decision by the federal government that undermines transparency and fair democracy.
The Colbert decision sets an extremely dangerous and significant precedent. With all the funds collected, Colbert will now be allowed to produce ads for any political candidate, aired during The Colbert Report. The FEC will allow him to run the ads only on his show — an encouraging point if there is one.
This new decision could spread, though, to other stations. FOX, for example, not only has strong political convictions, but it also employs political figures such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. Would it be fair for them to accept huge, concealed campaign contributions just because they have their own shows?
Of course, the decision has been destined to occur for some time now. In the landmark case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Supreme Court ruled that corporations, unions, and other moneyed institutions can contribute to political campaigns. This clearly throws democracy on its head: people vote, not companies. Last I checked, Exxon Mobil does not get to vote for president.
More senseless was another Supreme Court decision that struck down Arizona’s public campaign financing system. Under Arizona’s new law, the government provided candidates with a set amount of money in initial support. If a candidate faced an opponent who opted out of the system, the government would match the spending of the privately funded candidate with up to three times their initial amount of funding. In addition, the publicly funded candidate could spend no more private or public funds, while the privately funded candidate can continue to spend.
How can a person stand up for democracy, and then strike down a proposal that gives everyone — not just the wealthy — a fair chance to run for political office? The court, in yet another 5-4 decision determined by the conservative majority, found that the Arizona law did too much to restrict spending, conveniently ignoring the fact that privately funded candidates could spend as much as they want.
Fortunately, the effects of these decisions will be limited. According to Freakonomics, in examining nearly a thousand U.S. congressional races since 1972 finds that campaign spending has a negligible effect on electoral outcomes. A candidate who cuts his spending in half can expect his chances at winning to decrease only 1%. Conversely, a candidate who doubles his or her spending strengthens their chances by only 1%.
This notwithstanding, we shouldn’t support measures that undermine fair elections and democracy. All candidates should have access to funds, so non-wealthy citizens aren’t frightened to run for office. Ultimately, we should all have the chance to reach the highest level of leadership, without having to worry that Wal-Mart might stop us.
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