The Los Angeles Times reports on spending by independent groups in three California elections, raising alarm that “insurance companies, lawyers and other interests were calling most of the shots in the three campaigns.” These concerns were echoed by Dan Schnur, chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), who reacted to this independent speech by claiming that it “makes a mockery of the rules designed to create a level playing field.”
These sorts of overwrought claims are distressingly common in reporting on campaign finance, and this isn’t the first time the FPPC has been critical of the role of independent speech in elections (see, for example, their 2008 report on the phenomenon, the cover of which features the California capital building being menaced by a giant gorilla hurling $100 bills). But these claims also fundamentally misunderstand the role that independent speech plays in elections.
Contrary to the view of many proponents of campaign finance regulation, voters are not automatons—interest groups cannot simply pour opinions into their heads. Voters must be persuaded, and the groups profiled in the Los Angeles Times article are simply attempting, through independent political advocacy, to persuade voters to take action at the ballot box. Those efforts may succeed or fail and, as the FPPC’s 2008 report shows, such efforts often do fail. But as the Supreme Court recognized in Citizens United v. FEC (.pdf), “[t]he fact that a corporation, or any other speaker, is willing to spend money to try to persuade voters presupposes that the people have the ultimate influence over elected officials.” In other words, it’s the voters who call the shots.