Campaign Finance Reform Has Made Every Local Election a National One


In 2008, an acquaintance of mine made a web comic. Sean Tevis, a democrat, decided that he was going to become a state representative from a conservative leaning district in a suburb of Kansas City. The comic he made was a hilarious look at how one's choice of web browser could be correlated with the user's political position (measured by their opinion of him).

The comic actually goes on to cover the other rigors of running for office, check it out here.

Despite doing better than President Obama, by 8% locally, he lost by a few hundred votes to an established (though thoroughly unpleasant) incumbent.

Surprised? I sure was, primarily because he spent about $80,000, somewhere around seven times what his opponent spent — according to their campaign finance reports. Of particular interest was that almost all of the money he raised came from individuals living outside of Kansas.

When Tevis posted his comic around the interwebs, he asked for a donation of a few dollars from anybody who wanted to contribute. In two weeks, he had raised more than $96,000 — and even had to return some contributions that came from outside the country.

Let me repeat that — ninety-six thousand dollars. In two weeks. For a candidate running for state representative, in Kansas, where contributions are limited to $500 max. Damn.

One of the many nuggets of wisdom bestowed upon me as I was learning how to run campaigns was that, in about 90% of cases in our area, he who spent the most won the race. So when Tevis lost in the end, I was pretty shocked.

Nowadays, there is a lot of talk about reforming the multi-billion dollar campaign finance industry to make it more "fair." While I've always been reluctant to believe any current legislator who tells me that they want to pursue campaign finance reform (because, all things being relatively equal, incumbents are much more likely to win an election and can use funds already raised in previous campaigns), Tevis' extreme case makes me think that it doesn't really matter one way or the other, and reminds me of that crucial academic truth — correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

Logic and ethics tell me that it would make far more sense for candidates' campaigns to be solely funded by entities within their respective states (except in the case of the presidential campaigns, for obvious reasons). It isn't fair that those who aren't among the group to be represented should have a large influence over the outcome of an election, even if it is free speech.

But reality and politics remind me that we live in a globalized world, and opinions, points of view and political positions are not excluded from that globalization. We have Fox News viewers, we have MSNBC viewers, and we have millennials who don't have cable, all of whom aren't likely to have their opinions swayed by the likes of television commercials, mailers, billboards and just about any other media. It's almost funny, but in a media saturated world, the only way to sway an opinion today might be actually talking to people directly, once again like it was before huge media became a factor in elections. It's all about grassroots again; having people interface with others on a candidate's behalf was, for example, a big factor in why Barack Obama won his first and second elections (and why Organizing for Action, composed of the president's former campaign strategists and supporters, is still operating outside of campaign season).

The Supreme Court's decision in Citizen's United caused a huge stir with people thinking that elections would simply be bought and sold by corporations — allowing campaigns to brainwash the masses and giving an unfair advantage to an otherwise less popular candidate who would represent a company's interests instead of the voters.' But I don't think it's happening any more or less than it used to, the rules of political engagement are just slightly altered. Besides, before corporations could directly give to campaigns, the leaders of those organizations just found ways around the spirit of the law anyway (think Koch Industries).

The biggest problem with campaign finance rules is that they keep truly talented, educated, caring and principled individuals from running for office in the first place because of the perception that it would be impossible to run against incumbents with incredible war chests. This is where reform could actually help us elect better candidates.

To get better candidates, make our democratic system fairer, and make sure every person can have a voice in government, here my prescription:

Lets allow anybody and any organization to give directly to any candidate they please. Lets also limit the amount of those contributions to something meager — say $1,000 — and stop allowing candidates to retain funds they collect in one election season for use in the next. The campaign must either spend the funds or give them to a cause at the end of election season.

This, essentially, places more money in the hands of quasi-political organizations, parties, lobbies and issue advocacy groups instead of candidates. But keep in mind how much money many of these organizations already have, giving them more isn't going to dramatically change the game. What it will do is give potential candidates who thought it would be impossible to pursue a political career that nudge they need to actually run in an election. Groups will advocate for an against them, just like they did before the theoretical new finance rules existed.

For candidates, this would mean funding would have to come from a plurality of voters, but the limited amounts mean that even if those funds come from outside of a state, it would have a limited impact because even large donors could not give more than the meager upper limit. The campaigns with the most supporters will fare the best (as, I think, it ought to be), meaning that those seeking to represent and appeal to a low-income group of voters have similar chances as those supported by big money organizations.

It's by no means a perfect solution to campaign finance reform, but I think it's an interesting place to start the conversation, and offers more than token reforms such as those usually considered in Washington.

What the Tevis case taught me: nobody is really in a separate state any more, we're rapidly becoming the community of the USA and not just our individual states, and we need to adjust our political rules to compensate. Even so, even with so much support from outside of his state, it ultimately didn't change the outcome among the people he was seeking to represent (keep in mind, he hired a lot of pros to help him too). Political contributions are a form of free speech, so let's keep our rights to free speech in place but make reforms that open up the field so potential candidates don't feel like they've lost the money battle before it's even started. This would be real reform.