As I See It: Lisa Johnston on money in politics

07/08/2014 3:47 PM

07/08/2014 3:47 PM

Money is the lifeblood of a political campaign.

Candidates with the most money will win 91 percent to 94 percent of the time. Money has this tremendous impact because voters are more likely to vote for candidates they remember from television ads or mailers.

There are two basic methods for acquiring campaign money: use your own money or obtain donations. Given these two pathways, candidates who amass large campaign treasuries come largely from two groups:

Wealthy individuals who can self-finance.

Those with enough moral flexibility to pledge loyalty to large contributors (wealthy individuals, political party committees or political action committees).

This is disconcerting. We should not embrace a system that hinders a majority of Americans from pursuing public service because they are not independently wealthy. Moreover, representation based on contribution size and frequency undermines the principles and ideals on which our system of government is based.

Money often drives political behavior. Many elected officials care largely about what they need to say to keep their financial support. A saddening display of this phenomenon occurred in April when Sen. Jerry Moran stood on the U.S. Senate floor and read an op-ed written by Charles Koch of Koch Industries, one of the senator’s top political contributors in recent years.

We need leaders who are dedicated to representing the interests of all their constituents, not sellouts who stand in front of the camera merely to recite the talking points their donors want to hear.

Another complicating factor is the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United, which posits that money equals free speech. This means that those who can afford to produce a commercial and purchase television air time to advocate for or against a candidate deserve to have that avenue to free speech. Those who cannot afford it do not deserve it. The unfortunate impact of this decision is that wealthy individuals and corporations have more access to and, thereby, are entitled to more free speech and political influence.

The influx of money for particular candidates can set up a political contest similar to a match between a skilled boxer with one hand tied behind his back and an inexperienced fighter who is allowed to use brass knuckles and a baseball bat. Objectively, the skilled boxer may be a better fighter. However, he almost certainly cannot win because of the unfair advantage given to the opponent.

Because our current system sometimes distorts elections, we should provide equal resources to candidates through a public financing system. Public financing is not expensive. If we collected $2 from every U.S. resident, we could provide $500,000 and $1,000,000 respectively to each major party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. For only slightly more, we could also provide public financing for state level races.

Just as we can only have a fair fight if boxers have similar equipment and follow the same rules, our elections will only become fair if public financing is mandated, each candidate is provided with equal resources, and political spending is limited to only those resources.

We need a finance structure that allows the best candidate to win rather than the person who solicits enough contributions to purchase the most television ads. Despite the fact that those who benefit from the current structure would oppose public financing, we should do what is necessary to increase the likelihood that the best candidates can serve as our elected leaders. Only then will we begin to see the positive changes in our leadership that we crave so desperately.

Lisa Johnston of Overland Park is a former university administrator, the 2010 Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate and a 2012 candidate for Kansas Senate. To submit an As I See It essay, send 700 words to Grace Hobson at ghobson@kcstar.com.

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