How Campaign Finance Works

Campaign Reform on the State Level

It's clear when looking at campaign finance reform that America's local communities are leading the charge. Throughout U.S. history, states have often been ahead of federal efforts, leading former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to label them "laboratories of reform" [source: Blakeman]. California, New York and Massachusetts implemented disclosure laws well ahead of the federal government. In 1909, Colorado passed the nation's first public funding system, only to have it ruled unconstitutional just one year later. Americans would have to wait 60 years to see another public funding plan [source: University of Denver].

Today, each state has control of its own campaign finance regulations, and some states have passed radical laws that govern their elections. Thirty states have made substantial changes to their campaign finance laws in the last 15 years. Maine has pushed for public financing for all elections. Washington state requires online spending disclosure. Many states have lobbied for shorter campaign periods, voluntary spending limits and contribution caps with great success. By making spending limits voluntary, states are able to avoid violating the terms of the Buckley v. Valeo ruling.


Some states limit contributions from individuals to PACs and from PACs to candidates. Unions and corporations are heavily monitored and limited in their influence, with Texas and Alaska prohibiting them from spending on a candidate's behalf altogether. Every state but Louisiana requires that campaign ads disclose who paid for them, and most mandate that ads paid for by organizations outside the campaign indicate that the candidate didn't authorize the ad. The same holds true for all radio and print advertising.

Vermont passed a controversial law called Act 64 in 1997 that put a mandatory cap on spending and contributions to candidates and PACs. However, this groundbreaking measure was met with opposition on the federal level and overturned by the Supreme Court in 2006 on the precedent of Buckley v. Valeo [source: Warren].

Colorado passed an aggressive piece of legislation in 2002 called Amendment 27. This finance reform initiative included caps on spending and contributions, as well as full disclosure of funds. Wealthy special interest groups were held in check by the measure, forcing candidates to work for a broad base of supporters instead of getting huge checks from a smaller pool. It also attempted to curb "attack ads" on the opposition by requiring candidates to personally stand behind their ads. Soon after, the opposition introduced legislation that would have rendered Amendment 27 useless, but grassroots efforts and a unified media campaign kept these provisions from being approved. In 2010, Colorado Republicans challenged Amendment 27, following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in "Citizens United v. FEC." However, the amendment wasn't overturned [source: Ballotpedia].

While states are generally bolder in their reform attempts, there are still many shortcomings. Many states do not have the money to support public funding of elections, and enforcement agencies are often understaffed and overworked. Candidates who cheat the system rarely draw penalties and are seldom criminally prosecuted.

Author's Note: How Campaign Finance Works

As someone who believes that a political candidate should be elected based on merit alone, it's a little deflating to write about campaign finance. Everyone knows it takes money to win an election, but when you dig into the matter, it seems like money may be the overriding factor in whether or not a candidate is elected. Without heavy funding, a candidate has no chance, and "chasing the money" has become more and more commonplace with each election year. The good news is that the United States government knows this is a problem, and there's more regulatory legislation or proposed legislation than at any other time in our history. Here's one writer who hopes that the United States is able to clean up the election process and regulate the amount of money being contributed by groups or individuals with special interests.


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