Friday, May 21, 2004

campaign finance

just finished watching this lecture on mitworld about campaign finance entitled 'political advertising, free speech and the problem of campaign reform'. the speech was given by stephen ansolabehere, a professor of political science at mit and author of a book on negative campaign ads, 'going negative'.

the lecture starts out by going over both the history of money as speech (i.e., buckley v. valeo) and the amounts/sources of money going into campaigns. for example, $3 billion was spent in the last round of federal elections: congressional candidates spent $1 billion of that money, parties spent another $1.1 billion for god knows what (likely hookers), and the remaining $0.74 billion was spent in the presidential election. ansolabehere goes on to say that it basically costs $40 to get someone to vote.

the possible issues related to the explosive growth in campaign spending in the past 30-40 years are then presented. his research shows that campaign donations lead to virtually no corruption; that is, spending money on candidates does not lead to quid pro quo private benefits.

however, his research has shown that the current structure of campaign finance results in financially weighted voting -- that is, since it costs $40 to get someone to vote, a donation of $2000 will increase your individual vote by a factor of 50. so if you are aligned with a particular candidate's ideology, then you can influence the outcome of the election through spending.

the data he presents shows that campaign contributions come from a constant fraction of 8% of the population, and -- not surprisingly -- of that 8%, 91% are from the top quintile of wage earners. that is, the richest 20% of the population have 12 times the voting power as the remaining 80% of the populace.

another interesting factiod that he threw out there is that spending -- when adjusted for gdp -- has remained relatively flat since the 1940's. england, sweden, and italy have all show this same phenomenon of election spending existing as a constant fraction of the society's income.

personally, i find his results to be slightly less dramatic than what i would have expected, especially with regards to the non-existance of corruption. perhaps i am just so anti-lobby that i want to believe that campaign contributions corrupt governemnt much more than they actually do. however, i think that other research, such as that done by the center for responsive politics, shows much stronger connections between donations and access to the political process.

in this 'washington journal' episode, larry makinson (senior fellow at the center for responsive politics) discusses not only how money buys politicians seats, but also how those politicians are then indebted to the donors who put them in office.

for example, his research shows that 94% of the time, the candidate who spends the most money wins the race, and in 2/3 of the congressional districts, 1 candidate spent spends 10 times more money than the other candidate. (incidentally, he says that $900,000 is the going price for a seat in the house of representatives). in a different speech i heard him give on c-span radio (i couldn't find it archived), he goes on to show how that money required to win a seat ends up corrupting the politician's voting pattern. so, perhaps it isn't possible to approach a sitting politician and offer money for a vote, but it is possible to plant a kernel of corruption during election time through the application of funding stress.

c-span has another clip of the executive director & general council for the center for responsive politics appearing before the federal election commission and proposing limiting the spending of 527 groups, although i haven't gotten a chance to watch it yet, so if any of you guys watch it before i update this post, let me know what you think in the comments.

(also, check out the national voting rights institute for more news about campaign finance and reform)

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