Campaign Finance Laws: They Work
by Peter Maysmith
Maysmith of Colorado Common Cause here responds to Ari Armstrong's Campaign Finance Reform: Making a Bad Problem Worse.
To imply that a relatively small number of people voted for Amendment 15 in 1996 is disingenuous. Amendment 15 won decisively with 66% of the vote. In fact, Amendment 15 received more votes than any other issue or candidate on the general election ballot in Colorado in November of 1996. Both polling and voter decisions at ballot boxes in states throughout the country, tell us that campaign finance reform is incredibly popular with citizens of all political stripes. If the point is that voter participation in our democracy is frustratingly low, we absolutely agree. In fact, we believe one of the reasons non-participation is so high is because of the dominance of big money in our politics and the perception that the contribution and vote of the average person doesn't count.
The use of the term "welfare-liberal" to describe Common Cause (a non-partisan organization) and supporters of campaign finance reform is unfair. The concept of campaign finance reform is rooted in the populist ideal that every citizen should have a voice and an opportunity to participate in the political system in a meaningful way. The very use of the citizen initiative process, something Common Cause has employed on numerous occasions, implies a trust of the people. The welfare-liberal label has a catchy ring to it, but it doesn't fit the bill.
We believe the law was extremely effective. Far more people contributed money to candidates in 1998 than in previous years. Candidates were forced to reach out to a broader base of potential contributors and speak to many more citizens in order to fundraise successfully. The influence of special interests on candidate campaigns was dramatically diminished and the voice of citizens was significantly enhanced.
The major problem this last election cycle was the appearance of "educational groups" and their thinly veiled efforts to elect candidates. These groups, however, are not unique to Colorado. Throughout the country, including in states without any contribution limits at all, entities similar to the ones we saw in Colorado have sprung up. We are pursuing a legal complaint against one of the groups that we believe clearly violated the law.
Election law may be complicated but that does not mean that one cannot easily figure out what is, and what is not, legal. To reference the example cited regarding the T-shirts donated to Gail Schoettler's campaign, an Administrative Law Judge determined this was a clear-cut violation. The T-shirts in question had a value of well over the contribution limit. Dropping off $6,000 worth of T-shirts to the Schoettler campaign is no different from dropping off a $6,000 check. This case does not hinge on co-ordination and it is an easy call to say it was a violation of the law.
The bugaboo of rich candidates buying their way into office is often raised but rarely ever happens in reality. The last time a wealthy candidate tried to buy his way into office, he was soundly routed. (Bruce Benson in 1994 before campaign finance reform was in place!)
The contention that campaign finance reform hurts third parties is mystifying. Unfortunately, third parties are already significantly discriminated against and reducing the two major parties' access to huge campaign contributions would certainly not adversely impact third parties. In addition to what I think, Ross Perot with his Reform Party as well as the Green Party are both staunch advocates of campaign finance reform.
In closing, the question was asked of Representative Tupa, "Why shouldn't we just trust the voters to decide when an election has been unfairly bought?" The answer, of course, is that the voters did decide elections are unfairly bought, that is why they overwhelmingly approved strong campaign finance reform in 1996.