7 Big Misconceptions About Campaign Finance Laws

November 20, 2009

IJ litigates campaign finance cases because laws that govern campaign finance frequently stifle free speech and penalize participation in the democratic process. These laws are proliferating at the federal, state and local level as well. Regardless of the locale, the same misconceptions drive support for campaign finance laws. Here are seven misconceptions underlying campaign finance regulations, along with the reasons they are inconsistent with a free society.

Misconception: Private political contributions undermine democratic elections.
The Truth: Privately financed political campaigns allow citizens to participate in the political and democratic processes and are a manifestation of a free society, not a problem undermining it. Restricting the ability of Americans to support political causes does not promote democracy, it destroys freedom.

Misconception: Campaign finance laws are needed to prevent politicians from trading favors for contributions.
The Truth: Campaign finance laws treat a symptom—corruption—instead of the disease, which is that the government spends too much and that it has grown far beyond its constitutional bounds. Politicians would rather declare, “Stop us before we sell out again” and limit political speech and participation than act within constitutional limits. Elected officials lose their ability to dispense favors when we limit the size, scope and purse of the government.

Misconception: Without campaign finance reform, special interests will manipulate the process to ensure that government benefits go to them.
The Truth: Every interest that is not your own is a “special interest.” As long as we have expansive government, people will try to affect what the government does and reap the rewards. That is their right under the Constitution. If we are unhappy with a government that distributes benefits to favored constituencies, the solution is to limit what government can do, not to destroy the right of free speech, freedom of association and the right to petition the government.

Misconception: Campaign finance laws will spare members of Congress from the “money chase” of raising funds for their campaigns.
The Truth: Politicians should have to spend time convincing the public to financially support their candidacies, just as they should spend time convincing the public to vote for them. Working hard to generate support is one of the few aspects of our political system left where politicians must personally interact with the public. Eliminating this system will isolate elected officials even more from the people they purport to represent.

Misconception: There is too much money in political elections.
The Truth: Campaigns raise and spend money to communicate with voters. America is a huge country with millions of people. When less money is spent in elections, it leaves the voters with less political information with which to make important decisions.

Misconception: Big donors and corporations buy elections with all of that campaign spending.
The Truth: Campaign contributors buy speech with all of that campaign spending. Citizens can then decide whether they agree with that speech or not, and act accordingly. Big money does not buy elections any more than it buys market share in commercial advertising. If it did, Ross Perot would have been president, and we would all be watching the XFL while drinking New Coke and Pepsi Clear.

Misconception: Campaign finance regulations are necessary to prevent undue influence on government decision-making.
The Truth: Giving government the ability to determine what an “undue influence” is gives it the license to suppress voices it does not like because no one has ever explained what “due” influence is. A free society does not give government the power to decide who is speaking too much and who is speaking too little.

The Framers gave us an effective and simple way to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption among our elected leaders: a system of limited government with strong constitutional checks on its power. IJ will continue to work tirelessly to restore that system while protecting our fundamental First Amendment rights.

Bill Maurer is executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter.

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