Midterm Elections: “Money … Money”: Part III Campaign Finance Reform

“The current system of campaign finance would be almost unrecognizable to participants in the 1970s system. The governing law—both statutory and constitutional—has changed dramatically.” – Bipartisan Policy Center 

The above report goes on to note, “Beginning in the 1970’s new laws have produced a system in which all significant actors— candidates, parties, interest groups of whatever form, corporations and unions—can spend unlimited amounts on campaign- related expenditures.” They do so in some cases without voters ever knowing who provided the funds. In NJ we saw the influence of these funders in the 2017 race of Senate President Steve Sweeney where $14.4 million was spent by independent groups, and in the 2017 gubernatorial race where independent groups spent $9.1 million on pre-primary and primary spending along with $15.3 million during the general election. It is certainly prevalent in our current midterm elections for which it is too late to make changes, but changes we can make for the future. 

The most significant and damaging law was made real 8 years ago with the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United v FEC. Most famously Citizens United, created new types of PACs that are allowed to spend unlimited amounts from unrestricted sources so long as the spending is independent of candidates or parties. Other groups such as corporations now are free to spend unrestricted funds advocating the election or defeat of candidates. This shift in spending has morphed into a system that allows individuals and organizations to give hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars, to groups to spend in elections, some of whom are closely aligned with candidates and parties, without disclosure.

Because overthrowing the federal constitutional law of Citizens United so far has been impossible, action at the local level is the best alternative. As famed lawyer David Boies, points out, “The real problem is at the state and local level where an infusion of a certain amount of money can totally swamp elections.  As the gun-rights and marriage-equality campaigns demonstrate, movements begun in the states can, if they develop sufficient momentum, jump the track and influence federal constitutional law. Some examples: to reduce the influence of private wealth, New York City matches small donations six-to-one for those candidates who agree to contribution and spending limits. Maine offers a public grant to candidates who raise a qualifying number of $5 donations. 

New Jersey’s Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) Executive Director Jeffrey Brindle (left), explains that our NJ current law is woefully inadequate and we need legislation that would require disclosure by independent groups, strengthen political parties, and reform pay-to-play.  We see this impact not only on legislative and gubernatorial elections. For example, in the race of of Mayor Steven Fulop and his council team the campaign  reported raising $2.9 million from a large number of corporate and special-interest groups, suggesting possible pay-to-play. Also in the ballot Questions a few years ago on casino and the Transportation Trust Fund independent groups spent over $30 million. 

Just as it has been difficult to overthrow or alter Citizens United, so too it has been difficult to get our Legislature to enact financing reforms. Legislators can easily perceive benefits to them in increased campaign funds from corporations, unions, and special-intertrest groups, particularly when sources are undisclosed. Also such bills need to be carefully crafted to ensure that courts don’t determine them invalid based on Citizens United regulations. Such reform can bring significant benefit  to the public. It can also strengthen our NJ political parties which have lost much of their influence to the overwhelming dollars generated by outside groups.

As the preview image above illustrates, Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, recently said, “Money and politics is like water on pavement — it always finds the cracks. People are going to find a way to get around them.” Nonetheless, in Part IV we will examine proposals to strengthen our New Jersey system.

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