Congress Shall Make No Law...
2:14 PM
The money myth

On Monday, my colleague Paul Sherman argued a motion for temporary injunction in a case we filed in Florida recently challenging PAC requirements that are imposed on groups that want to join together to speak out for and against ballot initiatives. Under the law, when two or more people join together to spend more than $500 supporting or opposing a ballot issue, they must register with the state as a PAC, appoint a treasurer, open a separate bank account, and file regular reports of all their activities, among other requirements. In Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court held that these requirements were too burdensome for corporations speaking out in candidate elections. Our argument is that they must therefore be too burdensome when applied to small citizens groups that want to speak out about ballot issues.


Obviously skeptical of our argument, at one point the judge asked Paul this question: If “[a] person from Montana who wants to come here and spend $20 million and buy an election and does not want to reveal his funding” under your argument “he can do that, too, right?” This is a common view. We need campaign finance laws to prevent people from “buying elections.”


Of course, just because a view is common does not necessarily make it correct.


In fact, as a recent column by David Brooks makes clear, the notion that campaign spending “buys” elections is obviously wrong. As Brooks points out, even though the Democrats have outspent the Republicans in a number of close races, they lag behind in the polls. The same thing has happened to the Republicans in the past. And Brooks lists a number of candidates—including Joe Miller, who beat Lisa Murkowski, and Christine O’Donnell, who beat Mike Castle—for whom money obviously was not the deciding factor. There are many more examples, including Jon Corzine, Michael Huffington and Ross Perot, all of whom spent huge sums of money and lost. The same applies to ballot issues. Last summer, for example, proponents of a California initiative that would have enacted public campaign financing outspent opponents 2 to 1 and still lost.


None of this is surprising. Campaign spending doesn’t buy elections any more than commercial advertising buys market share. If it did, we’d all be driving American cars. The movies and television shows with the biggest ad budgets would be the most popular.


Money buys speech.  It buys exposure.  But it can’t buy elections, because the voters are ultimately the ones making the decision.  Yet that’s exactly what the money-buys-elections argument denies.  That argument presumes that voters are empty vessels, waiting to be filled with whatever thoughts the candidates and “special interests” want to pour into their heads.


The First Amendment is based on the opposite premise. As the Supreme Court said in Citizens United, “The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.” That some people may spend lots of money trying to convince us to agree with them does not make us any less free to make up our own minds.