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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Point-counterpoint: Implications of campaign finance

After record-breaking campaign spending, opinions differ on what this means for American democracy
Alice Vagun

Campaign finance has become a hotly debated topic as election spending in Wisconsin and beyond has reached record highs. Some argue that campaign finance needs reform, while others contend that the details of campaign finance become less significant in the high spending campaigns of modern elections.

What should be done to address these issues?

Point: Campaign finance needs reform at all levels


Campaign finance reform is necessary at all levels of government. This is indicated by campaign spending reaching all-time highs — the 2022 Wisconsin governor’s race cost about $114.6 million and 2020 presidential election candidates spent about $4.1 billion.

These exorbitant fundraising amounts are absurd, and the need for modern elections to raise this much money while running for office gives a strong advantage to candidates who come from money or have friends in the business world willing to shell out thousands of dollars. 

There is also little regulation in the world of campaign finance. The 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court case ruled that independent political spending by non-profits, corporations and other businesses have no limit on how much they disperse on supporting a political candidate.

This does not necessarily mean that these corporations can donate directly to a candidate’s campaign without limit, but it does mean that any materials that a corporation or non-profit organization creates independently to support that candidate has no limit. 

The Supreme Court ruling in tandem with individual fundraising that candidates can conduct gives a large preference to candidates with a wealthier background. Campaign finance needs to be reformed to even the playing field for all those who want to run for office, not just those who are wealthy. 

There are many solutions to reform campaign finance. The Brennan Center for Justice advocates for an overturning of the Citizens United decision as well as small donor public financing, a solution which would have public funds match certain small donations to a political candidate.

The primary solution of overturning Citizens United, however, is too difficult and would limit aspects of the First Amendment, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Instead, additional parameters should be placed on corporations, nonprofits and political action committees which financially support a political candidate in one way or another.

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Through federal legislation, the U.S. could add additional parameters such as requiring independent donors to reveal their names, stronger prevention of coordination between “independent” corporate expenditures and political candidates and stricter contribution limits for most campaigns. According to the ACLU, these kinds of solutions best address inequality involved in most campaign financing without limiting free expression rights of the First Amendment. 

High levels of campaign fundraising can show strong support for a candidate, but it can also give a boost to candidates who have corporate connections or are wealthy themselves. For this reason, campaign finance must be reformed.

Emily Otten ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in journalism.

Counterpoint: High campaign spending reduces the need for reform 

The growth of outside political spending has raised alarm bells surrounding the potential for special interests to influence elected officials. While wealthy individuals, corporations and advocacy groups being able to effectively buy their desired policies is serious concern for any society, the current state of campaign finance in the United States does not require reform.

According to data analyzed by Open Secrets, outside spending in the 2019-20 election cycle, including from Super PACs, non-profits, unions and trade associations, accounted for just $3.3 billion out of a total $14.4 billion spent. Rather than coming from outside organizations, most political spending comes in the form of small dollar individual contributions to candidates and parties. These donations, consisting of contributions of less than $200, accounted for 28% of all political spending in the 2020 cycle.

The tightly-fought race for Wisconsin’s third district between Derrick Van Orden and Brad Pfaff last fall follows a similar story, with all outside spending accounting for just 21% of total spending, according to Open Secrets. Direct donations to campaigns have strict limits and reporting requirements that make quid pro quo arrangements largely impossible. Outside spending may be important to campaigns, but it is not close to supplanting small dollar contributions. 

The amount of money spent running for office has also grown significantly in recent history. From 2010 to 2020, the total spending by congressional candidates has more than doubled, according to the Federal Election Commission. Perhaps counterintuitively, however, this reduces the risk of corruption via political spending.

First, increasing total spending reduces the pool of individuals and groups with pockets deep enough to credibly make a difference. Second, political campaigns face diminishing returns on spending.

All else being equal, the first $10 million of advertisements is more effective at persuading people to vote one way than the next 10 million spent. Voters’ minds get made up, they develop firm images of the candidates, and they become desensitized to the campaign’s messaging.

As a result of this fundraising, underdogs in high-spending races face less of a hurdle than those in cheaper ones. Making the marginal dollar less impactful reduces candidates’ incentives to make commitments in return for outside spending. 

This is especially true in high profile races where earned media — news coverage of candidates motivated by the election’s importance and public interest — augments traditional advertising and outreach. Wisconsin’s upcoming Supreme Court election is garnering significant news coverage given that it could flip the ideological lean of the Court.

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Ahead of the open primary Feb. 21, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that candidates have already raised nearly $1.5 million. High-salience, high-cost elections uncoincidentally have the most immediate effect on public policy. The current states of campaign finance make it difficult for special interests to influence these races.

The centrality of small value contributions coupled with the dramatic rise in overall campaign spending has limited the ability for outside spending to significantly affect elected officials. Given this reality, there is no pressing need for campaign finance reform. 

Aiden Nellis ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying economics and political science.

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