Republican legislators in September successfully passed a bill regarding campaign finance and Super PACs' ability to raise and spend unlimited funds to indirectly support candidates running for state positions. Governor Rick Snyder signed the bill into law on Sept. 20. The new legislation effectively codifies the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that by imposing regulations on a Super PAC's ability to spend its funds is unconstitutional because it limits freedom of speech.
Democrats in both houses opposed the bill because of the inability of tracing money back to donors. Southfield Representative Jeremy Moss claimed that Republicans are, “bent on flooding the system with untraceable money they can use to fatten their campaign coffers.” Democrats have spoken out strongly against the increasing “dark money” in the political system. Research suggests that campaign finance reform is primarily a debate amongst political elites rather than the general public. Perhaps campaign finance is too confusing for Americans to understand, and regardless of the laws in place, a majority of Americans will continue to view the government to be controlled by few special interests.
The issues of campaign finance reform seem to be a much larger issue for political elites rather than the majority of Americans. Campaign finance became emphasized in both Al Gore and John McCain’s presidential campaigns limiting the amount of “soft money” going to political parties to support candidates. Political elites on both sides expressed concerns with “hard” money and “soft” money contributions. In the early 2000s, a majority of political leaders in both parties were polled as in favor of limiting contributions of “soft” money — 71% of republicans and 75% of democrats. In 2002, “soft money” going to political parties was limited by the passage of the McCain-Feingold law. Further reform is still a popular topic amongst political elites, but 64% of the American public does not believe reform will make a difference in limiting special interests.
Soft money is limited at the national level, and Michigan also limits the amount parties can contribute to a candidate. However, since the Citizens United case, there has been an increase in super PACs and helped create a base for political spending. In the United States there are currently 1,691-registered super PACs according to opensecrets.org. Although there are many different types of PACs, generally speaking, a PAC is an organization that directly contributes or coordinates with candidates and their campaigns. These organizations have contribution limits similar to individual limits. Where a Super PAC can raise and spend unlimited funds supporting or opposing a candidate, but cannot legally coordinate with a candidate.
Although the debate between policy makers remains active, campaign finance is confusing to most Americans, according to a poll that asked five questions about campaign finance; 88% of voters answered two or fewer questions correctly. The confusion regarding campaign finance could be related to the fact that American voters are largely unconcerned about where campaign funding comes from. A survey of more than 1,200 adults nationwide conducted by College of Mount Saint Vincent, found that only about a third of voters consider candidate funding as an important attribute to consider when voting.
Clearly voters do not consider candidate funding a wedge issue, but Americans still perceive government to be controlled by a “few special interests,” according to Nathaniel Persily and Kelly Lammie. In their article, “Perceptions of Corruption and Campaign Finance: When Public Opinion Determines Constitutional Law,” they illustrate that perceived corruption is on the decline, but find 76% of respondents reported that government is controlled by a handful of special interests. Research done by Gilens and Page support this poll, as they find business interests and the economic elite dominate U.S. policy. This may help explain why wealthy Americans perception of candidates' reliance on the wealthy and interest groups for campaign funds differs from the less wealthy public, according to Bowler and Donovan. These differences could come from the wealth gap between the average American and political elites, as Kraus and Callaghan found the differences significantly affect their views of legislation.
The fear that government is controlled by a few special interests could have inspired other states to enact their own legislation regarding campaign finance. According to National Conference of State Legislators, Michigan is 1 of 13 states that allow SuperPACs to spend “unlimited” funds to campaigns, where the other 37 impose limits to the amounts, similar to individual contributions. In 2015, California voted to increase regulations on Super PAC’s coordination with candidates. The legislation requires the candidate and the Super PAC to prove that there is no personal connection between the two of them, including but not limited to, family, former staff, and fundraising. This simply shifts the burden of proof from the State to the Super PAC and candidate. Wisconsin also is against the rising influence of untraceable donations. according to the Wisconsin Gazette, in 2016, eighteen different communities voted in favor of amending the constitution to prevent “big money” from influencing elections. The Wisconsin vote, did not change anything in the state, but symbolizes in favor of amending the US constitution and overturn the Citizen United case.
The bill passed in Michigan although may upset some political elites battling in Lansing, will likely have little impact on the everyday voter. Research has shown that regardless of the laws in place, few Americans feel that they could eliminate special interests and the wealthy from controlling politics. Though few states have made it clear that they want to reform these policies, the issue of campaign finance will likely continue as a debate amongst elites and not the populace.
Chris Kozler is an undergraduate policy fellow at the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.