The Supreme Court decision that obliterated important aspects of McCain/Feingold campaign laws was a victory for the 1st Amendment as well as corporate America. As much as it pains me, this decision was the correct one; we cannot have restrictions on political speech. It does not matter if the means for disseminating the speech are the public air waves or a bullhorn from atop a soap box, the right to political speech must be preserved.
In the dissenting opinion Justice John Paul Stevens said, “The court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.” While perhaps true, both candidates and voters are smart enough, in tune enough with their surroundings to not be overly influenced by the greed of big pharma, oil, health insurance companies, unions, and others.
Tossed aside by the court decision were laws limiting corporations or unions from being broadcast or transmitted 30 days before a presidential primary and 60 days before the general election. Fortunately, left intact, at least for now, are bans that date back to 1907. Some important limits do remain intact: Corporations still cannot give money directly to federal candidates or national party committees. Also upheld were some other restrictions, including disclosure requirements for nonprofit groups that advocate for political candidates.
Now, to combat what the Supreme Court has undone, efforts must be made in D.C. to establish a system similar to Maine’s Clean Election Act (MCEA).
Passed by referendum and in effect since 2000, candidates demonstrate citizen support by collecting a set number of $5 qualifying contributions from voters within their districts. They are then eligible for campaign funding from the Clean Election Fund. Candidates must agree to forgo all private contributions (including self-financing), and limit their spending to the amount from the fund.
These candidates are also given an additional one-for-one match if they are outspent by noncomplying opponents or are the target of independent expenditures (such as ads produced by a group not associated with the opposing candidate).
Maine’s clean elections laws are hardly perfect. Political parties and 3rd-party groups still play a significant role in disseminating candidate information. The Maine Ethics Commission does an admirable job of making the process transparent and fair to both candidates and those acting on their behalf.
The MCEA is considered by most be widely successful. According to The Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, in the 2008 general election, 81% of the legislative candidates participated in MCEA. Democrats, Republicans and Green Independent party members have all utilized the program, in 2008 70% of Republican House candidates and 94% of Democratic House candidates participated.
Would similar systems at the federal level survive court scrutiny? Perhaps so, in November 1999, the U.S. District Court upheld Maine’s Clean Election Law. A federal judge found that spending limits on candidates who accept public funding is not a free speech violation. This is because the system is voluntary, and while it provides “incentives to make the public financing route attractive,” these incentives are not “overwhelming or of an order that can be said to create profound disparities.”
There are opportunities to preserve the rights of individuals, corporations, nonprofits and other groups that limit their influence on elections while still keeping the integrity of the 1st Amendment in tact. Responsibility still lies with candidates to call out those who put forth inaccurate information. The onus is on the public to research, analyze and, if possible, directly question candidates for office. The single best way to limit outside influence on campaigns is for a vigilant public.