What’s The Matter With Election Spending?

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Joe Albanese Research Fellow, Center for Competitive Politics
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American politics is corrupt. Big donors buy elections. Voters have no say in their government. These clichés are completely untrue. Sadly, many Americans take them for granted regardless. A major culprit is the countless stories during every election cycle suggesting there is too much money in politics – whether it’s overall political spending, out-of-state donations, or “outside” spending. Ironically, the media outlets that obsess the most over these contests are the first to object when Americans participate in them.

Take coverage of the race in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District as an example. The contest for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s former seat has attracted a lot of attention – and, presumably, a lot of readers for outlets likePolitico, too. Yet that outlet also lamented that this race (perhaps not by chance) is now the most expensive U.S. House contest in history. “It is plainly more money than one House race out of 435 needs,” their story says.

It is unclear how much money is “plainly” too much. But spending in the Georgia race is less strange than the coverage suggests.

Despite how headlines about the “most expensive race” are meant to sound unprecedented, they aren’t as special as they seem. Inflation and the growing number of voters practically guarantee that raw dollar spending must rise to reach increasingly larger numbers of Americans. When there is a singular, nationwide focus on one important election, it should not be a shock that many people choose to make their voices heard in it.

“Most expensive” is even less remarkable in other cases. After all, there has to be at least one “most expensive race” for each election cycle. You can break that label down further by looking at the “most expensive” House or Senate contests separately. Or you can look at state-specific trends to multiply the story opportunities. By itself, the moniker “most expensive” doesn’t tell you much.

But “most expensive race” isn’t the only common tagline for misleading “money in politics” stories. There’s also a fixation on out-of-state spending in local and statewide races. The Georgia Sixth special election is an example of this too, but other races have also seen such stories.

Out-of-state donors are a popular target for political attacks between electoral rivals (even when both sides receive out-of-state support). These attacks are meant to evoke suspicion: Does a candidate supported by these donors have the best interests of locals in mind? Why would a donor want to support a candidate they can’t vote for?

The simple answer to these questions is that federal elections don’t have a purely local focus, which is why national media covers them to begin with. Senators and Congressmen may represent their own states or districts, but they cast votes on issues of national importance in Congress. It is perfectly reasonable for out-of-state donors to spend money in the hopes of persuading voters. They have skin in the game too, and it doesn’t change the fact that local voters still make the final decision.

Lastly, the media is obsessed with coverage of “outside spending.” This phrase means nothing more than speech by anyone but candidates and political parties. Why should candidates and parties be the only ones with a voice in our elections? Media outlets and organizations that support more political speech regulation often complain most loudly about this category. But spending by candidates and parties – not to mention “earned media” from news coverage – vastly dwarfs “outside spending.” (Non-candidate spending exceeded candidate spending in only 26 races in 2016.)

Unsurprisingly, those who say “outside spending” transforms our democracy into an oligarchy are also off base. Super PACs and nonprofit advocacy groups have their own limitations on how they can participate in politics. And ultimately, they are just groups of like-minded citizens who spend money to broadcast a point of view. Media outlets spend money to report and comment on elections because they know people care about them, so why can’t others do the same? Both actions are protected by the First Amendment and are fundamental to a robust public debate.

The negative portrayal of political spending, out-of-state donors, and “outside” groups in the media tends to convince readers that “money in politics” is a problem rather than an essential feature of our democracy. Money is essential to communicating with voters, and that’s where much of it goes. High levels of political spending, like high levels of readership for political stories, reflect broad interest in an election. Restricting one is not much different than restricting the other.

Voters may groan as they read about higher levels of political spending. But it sure beats the alternative: restricting the political speech and participation of Americans in the elections of their representatives.

Joe Albanese is a Research Fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics in Alexandria, Virginia. The Center is the nation’s largest organization dedicated to defending First Amendment political speech rights.