Opinion, Political Column

CHRIS ESTEP: Is excessive money in campaigns “cheapening” democracy?

“It’s getting to the point where, in politics, money is the most important thing.”

John Snow, a former state senator in North Carolina, said those words to New Yorker writer Jane Meyer for an October 2011 story titled “State for Sale.” Unfortunately, the excessive influence of money in politics is not just restricted to state-level politics, or to North Carolina, or to only one political party; the American political process is increasingly shaped by campaigns that can raise the most money and spend it most effectively. While we spend more and more money on elections, I’ve been beginning to wonder: have we actually diminished the value of American democracy?

Snow had been a Democratic state senator in North Carolina for three terms when, in 2010, he lost to his Republican opponent in a brutal re-election fight. Jim Davis, an orthodontist with little political experience and Snow’s challenger, received help from “two seemingly independent political groups [that] had spent several hundred thousand dollars on ads against Snow − a huge amount in a poor, backwards district,” according to New Yorker’s Jane Meyer. Because of the sheer amount of money used to create ads attacking him, John Snow failed to win re-election, as did several other state legislators in North Carolina with similarly well-funded opponents.

First, it’s important to emphasize just how much money gets spent on elections in the United States. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, over $1 billion was spent on House races and over $700 million was spent on Senate races in 2010. This year, House campaigns alone have spent over $500 million (as of September 25). And that $500 million does not even include the money spent by super-PACs (independent groups that can donate unlimited amounts of money for individual expenditures) and other independent groups. Well-funded campaigns can spend massive amounts on advertising through all forms of media. We see the effects when we examine just how much money is spent per voter on advertising in each state. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the total amount of ad spending in the competitive Senate race in Arkansas is almost $7.50 per eligible voter. That is a massive amount of money.

It is also important to remember that the issue of money in politics is not the fault of just Republicans or conservatives. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the top three individual donors in 2014 have given mainly to Democratic and liberal candidates and groups. In September, Kenneth Vogel and Tarini Parti wrote in Politico that “Democrats love to cast Republicans as the party of big money, beholden to the out-of-touch billionaires bankrolling their campaigns…but new numbers tell a different story – one in which Democrats are actually raising more big money than their adversaries.”

The sheer amount of money being raised and spent in politics should be concerning to everyone. It is dangerous when someone’s wallet can sway elections more than the candidate’s qualifications. In spite of so much advertising by campaigns and interest groups, turnout in the 2010 midterm elections was a measly 37.8%, according to George Mason University’s “U.S. Elections Project.” Around $7 billion was spent in the 2012 federal elections, and Nancy Kaffer wrote in The Daily Beast that for that amount of money, “you could run the state of New Mexico for a year, send a manned mission to Mars on the cheap, buy all the electricity in Hawaii.”

As time goes on, the amount of money spent in each election cycle will only continue to increase, and people like John Snow of western North Carolina will continue to be challenged by opponents with money from donors who have never even lived in that county, or district, or state. This dangerous trend will continue until enough voters and policymakers realize these millions of dollars are disgustingly wasteful and could be used in a myriad of other ways that would actually improve our country. But, arguably more importantly, an imposing limit on spending money for campaigns could help us to vote for the right person, and for the right reasons.

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