Follow the Money: Campaign Finance

Speakers Jonathan Krasno and Laura Bierman preparing to give their presentations
Photo by: Amanda Chin

One-third of the money given to New York political candidates in 2012 came from just 127 organizations, according to Laura Bierman, executive director of the New York State League of Women Voters.

How much money did that total? Seventeen million dollars.

With an election coming up on Nov. 6, Tompkins County League of Women Voters held a campaign finance reform event Sept. 24 at the Tompkins County Public Library to help educate the community about political contributions and changes the group would like to see to the system.

Kay Sharp, president of the Tompkins County chapter of the League, said the group is non-partisan and “does not oppose or endorse any candidates or political party.” However, the League is political. Members study issues and lobby for ideas such as campaign finance reform.

History of Campaign Finance Reform

Binghamton University Professor Jonathan Krasno, who spoke at the event, was brought on as a campaign finance expert by the FEC to deal with high profile cases.

Professor Krasno talks about the Supreme Court Cases he helped with when the FEC brought him on as a campaign finance expert

Krasno said “money has been a big part in American politics for a while now, with funds to candidates or campaigns to help them win elections increasing.”

At the national level, there have been multiple efforts to regulate campaign financing.

The Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) regulated how much political campaigns could spend and fundraise.

In 1974, there were amendments to FECA – limits were placed on campaign contributions. This also led to the creation of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which requires public disclosure of funds raised and restricts contributions made to influence federal election.

Senator James Buckley (R-NY), argued against FECA in 1976, saying that it violated the First Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed, allowing limitless spending by political candidates.

League’s Stance

Bierman said the limits on contributions by people and corporations have many loopholes in New York State. For example, if corporations have multiple LLCs, which is common practice, each LLC is allowed to give five thousand dollars.

Example of how Koch Industries can find a loophole with LLCs
Photo by: Amanda Chin

Bierman said the rules of personal use of campaign funds are vague, which means that many politicians get away with this. There is also no public financing of campaigns allowed in New York State.

A major problem, she explained, is financial influence from interest groups.

“It does not limit contributions from lobbyists and state contractors, which means that lobbyists play too big a role in funding campaigns,” she added.

What needs to be done? The League calls for public financing of campaigns and reform of current laws.

“We are against big money from companies and lobby agencies, so we want to free up the money and support the fact that voters are supporting candidates rather than big companies and big donors,” said Sharp.

League leaders would like the law to be similar to that of the 14 states that have some type of public financing option for political candidates.

Bierman said that this can “decrease influence of big money, increase participation of small donors, increase voter participation, and create a more diverse candidate pool.”

Government/Lieutenant Governor State Legislative Offices State Supreme Court/Other
Arizona Arizona New Mexico
Connecticut Connecticut West Virginia
Florida Hawaii
Hawaii Maine
Maine Minnesota
Maryland
Massachusetts
Michigan
Minnesota
New Jersey
Rhode Island
Vermont
Fourteen states that have some type of public funding law

Challenges

“The public really doesn’t understand all that is involved with campaign finance reform and how that can impact both voter turnout as well as the elections,” said Bierman

There is also the difficulty of enforcing the laws once they are actually passed.

Krasno said that once a law is passed, “it immediately falls under siege from different players who want to find a way around parts of it.”

In order for people to see change, they need to continue to lobby so more people will turn out to vote, added Sharp.

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