Institution for Social and Policy Studies

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Election Finance Reform: Viable Proposals vs. Long-Term Goals

Last week’s ISPS conference on money, politics, and inequality left a big question unanswered: how do disclosure laws fit into the research agenda for election finance?

The short answer is: not very well.

Much of the current academic work surrounding money in elections has focused on far-reaching campaign finance reform proposals like public financing, expanded matching funds programs, and even calling an Article V Constitutional Convention. Interesting though these ideas are, they look very different from the kinds of proposals pending before Congress and in legislatures across the United States.

For many political practitioners however, the most sensible near-term solution for campaign finance reform is to shore up gaping holes in current election law that allow political groups to “dark spend” – to avoid existing state or federal disclosure regimes. Recent reform measures like the DISCLOSE Act in Congress or state proposals in Montana and Arizona are prime examples.

How is it then that the research community is so focused elsewhere?

It could be that disclosure oriented proposals are somehow insufficiently comprehensive or utopian – stopgap measures that ignore the real problems with money in elections. Reasoning like this, however, ignores the real harm brought about by dark money groups and their work. Dark money plays by different rules than the “light” money of regulated individual and committee contributions, giving rise to exactly the kind of “appearance of corruption” harms that the Supreme Court contemplated in Buckley and subsequent case law.

Recent interventions to force dark money groups to disclose their activities underscore the importance of disclosure as a constitutionally and politically effective means of protecting elections. Dark money is a real and solvable problem. So long as dark money loopholes allow for a two-tiered system of campaign finance, disclosure will remain at the forefront of real world reform measures and address the resulting appearance of corruption in elections.

For this reason, it is important for the research community to likewise devote some of its energies to disclosure-oriented campaign finance reform. Election research cannot be uniformly utopian; it must meaningfully inform debate about viable proposals for change, at the same time it helps make policy makers and activists aware of smart, long-term goals for reform.

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Affiliated Fellow