Campaign finance failure

Criticism of Colorado’s reform must consider national context

Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler is absolutely correct in his assessment that campaign finance reform in the state is not working well. In fact, as he put it, the effort to control money in politics has, “failed – just failed – by its own terms.”

The problem, though, extends well beyond Colorado’s borders and, as such, stands little chance of being rectified until the national campaign finance landscape changes – something unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Colorado voters in 2002 approved an amendment limiting the amount individuals can contribute to candidates for office to $400. Meanwhile, in the infamous Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found that there can be unlimited contributions to political causes from individuals and corporations, provided those causes do not coordinate directly with candidates.

There is plenty of wiggle room in what “coordinate” means, but as was evident with the $6 billion spent leading up to the Nov. 6 election, the decision has dramatically increased the cost of running for office – this year’s price tag was $700 million above the next most costly election. That total does not account for “shadow money” that is not required to be reported to the Federal Election Commission – a number that is large, influential and, ultimately, unknowable.

With that as the national backdrop, it is a bit laughable to restrict contributions to candidates in Colorado. Throwing good money after bad by eliminating restrictions altogether is not necessarily any better a scenario, though. Ultimately, the issue must be addressed nationally so that massive, untraceable infusions of cash into the political process somehow can be curtailed. Limiting the power of individual donors while delivering carte blanche to corporate or interest group contributors does not positively influence elections, nor bring out the best in candidates.

The University of Denver convened a panel to consider two critical questions: “To what degree, if any, should campaign finance be regulated?” and “If regulation is desirable, what form should it take?” A third question might be, “How would Colorado or Congress go about enacting such regulation?” That, after all, is likely to be the highest hurdle any campaign finance reform would face.

In the meantime, finding ways to encourage individual participation in the political process – defined in this case as contributing to candidates’ election bids – is perhaps an important focus for Colorado lawmakers. Voters increasingly feel as though their voices, let alone votes, do not make a difference. Under the current system, it seems as though their dollars do not, either.

While limiting the influence of money in politics is a worthy and critical undertaking, doing so requires action at all levels of contribution so those who contribute in the light of day and their more shadowy counterparts are held to the same standards of transparency.

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