More on the (Overblown?) Trouble With Campaign Advertising from John McGinnis

From our Elections and Technology blogger John O. McGinnis, author of Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance Through Technology, a further response to the many objections that people have to our our current campaign finance system. In last week’s post he discussed the various informational benefits to widespread campaign advertising. But does permissive advertising empower special interests? What about the potential for a lack of disclosure of expenditures? Read his follow-up here:


In my last post, I argued that spending substantial money for campaign advertisements is necessary to inform inattentive voters and that these advertisements can improve as the information about the results of policies improves through  the new technology described in my forthcoming book.

Opponents of freewheeling campaign advertisements by politicians and their supporters have raised three thoughtful concerns about the expenditures needed to support such a flood of communications.  First, many have worried about the lack of disclosure of such contributions and expenditures.  They are right to do so.  All campaign contributions and expenditures should be posted immediately and transparently on the internet so that the public can see who is supporting whom.   With new mechanisms of aggregating information, opponents can highlight the connections between contributions to a candidate by special interests and the special interest programs that he supports. Intriguingly, as I discuss in my book, there is some suggestion that special interest spending on campaigns is less effective than other spending. Better disclosure should make it still less influential.

But one still might be worried that a permissive advertising regime will empower special interests, because they will be the most capable of supporting politicians.  Of course, special interests cannot be defined as any interest with which one disagrees.  Special interests are best understood as groups that can use special mechanisms provided by the government to aggregate money for their narrow goals.  Labor unions and for-profit corporations are examples. The corporate and union form permits these organizations to use people’s funds without their express agreement for political purposes.

Nevertheless, the concern expressed by President Obama and others about for-profit corporation spending is overblown. Corporations are forbidden from giving to candidates directly and despite the recent Supreme Court decision permitting independent expenditures by corporations, for-profit companies do not spend much money for independent expenditures on and behalf of candidates. Presumably, they do not want to alienate possible customers and employees.

The vast majority of corporate spending on campaigns is by non-profits. Non-profit corporations- so-call SuperPACs– generally represent like-minded individuals banding together to expressly pursue some social vision though political speech.  They are not presumptively special interests any more than are politicians themselves.  Like advertisements by politicians, advertisements directed by groups of citizens can provide valuable information about candidates and the policies they support. They have the additional advantage that they sometimes inject information into the campaign that neither candidate would provide.

One way of weakening the influence of special interests is to empower individuals to give more than they are now permitted to do so under our campaign finance laws. If individuals could give more, special interest spending would become a smaller percentage of campaign spending. The current $2, 500 ceiling for contributions to candidates in federal elections could be increased by four or even eightfold without any serious danger of corruption so long as contributions are disclosed.

But one might be concerned that the citizens who contribute to candidates and SuperPACs are richer on average than other citizens, thus skewing politics toward the wealthy. This is the most serious concern about permitting private money to finance politics. But we must compare its consequences with the alternatives.  The wealthy have a wide variety of views. In the last election people with incomes over $250,00  a year favored Obama, not McCain, although the former promised to  raise their taxes. This diversity of views flows from the nature of a market economy. New businesses are always arising and with them people who have different backgrounds, material interests and social visions.  Silicon Valley has a fundamentally different culture from Detroit.

Moreover, if one constrains donations by the wealthy to rent the media to propagate their views, insiders who own or who have otherwise more access to the media will then gain disproportionate influence.  Journalists, entertainers, and academics lean much more strongly to one side of the political spectrum than do the wealthy.  And since their work is less variegated than that in the business sector, we are also likely to get less varied perspectives as a result.  In Britain with limitations on campaign expenditures, politicians spend a lot of time currying favor with press barons, like Rupert Murdoch.

The best way to address concern about inequality is to give a tax credit to people of more modest incomes to encourage their contributions to parties or candidates. That program is likely to expand the amount of information in the campaign season rather than contract it, as would restrictions on independent expenditures or more severe limitations on contributions or expenditures. Such tax credits would be a cost to society, but as we gain more and more probative information about policy through putting politics in the domain of computation, it is rational to spend more money to help that information reach voters.  Because the decisions government makes affects us all,  money to help voters make wiser decisions is money well spent.

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.