Experts Debate Role of Money in Elections

Sep 12, 2012

Two leading political scientists brought their expertise to Altgeld Hall Wednesday night to a full crowd of students and members of the public.  Richard Hasen, University of California, Irvine and Bradley Smith, Capital University School of Law took the stage to discuss the impact of Citizens United.

Matthew Streb moderated the event.  Streb is an Associate Professor in and Chair of the Department of Political Science and frequent guest on WNIJ. Hasen's area of expertise is in election law and campaign finance regulation. He runs the Election Law Blog. He says there is a great deal of hidden money funding elections.  While Hasen says it is not clear if spending will effect the outcome of elections, it does have an impact:

Aside from that information being valuable to voters, it also helps later on if there is a skew or there is corruption being able to trace back and see where did the money come from and what did the politician do. - Richard Hasen, campaign finance expert, University of California-Irvine

Hasen argues the lack of disclosure adds the potential for corruption.  As far as changes to the way elections are funded and oversight, he does not expect to see a constitutional amendment within his lifetime.  He says the amount of hidden money is the most seen in a generation.

Bradley Smith specializes in campaign finance and corporate engagement in politics. He says there could be safety concerns if all contributors are made public, especially if there money is behind a controversial issue, such as abortion.  He fears those donors could become targets of violence if there names are public.

Smith says that does not mean the current disclosure regulations are acceptable:

I think that there is a role for disclosure and I think it's an important role, but I think we need to make sure that it frankly it doesn't get out of hand, and we need to recognize that there are limits to disclosure.  Knowing that an ad is paid for by the NAACP or Sierra Club is probably enough, I don't think we need to know all of the members of that group.  - Bradley Smith, campaign finance expert, Capital University School of Law

The two took questions from the audience on topics  including the importance of digital media in elections and the balance of advocacy and ad spending for organizations.

Background: Citizens United

from the Supreme Court of the United States:

Holding: Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including ads, especially where these ads were not broadcast.

Judgment: Reversed 5-4, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy on January 21, 2010. in a 5-4 decision with an opinion written by Justice Kennedy. Justice Stevens dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.