Campaign Finance Laws Were Made To Be Broken

(May 2014)

Another election in Philadelphia has come and gone and, along with it, complaints about how candidates and their campaigns used, misused, or abused campaign funding.  It is a maxim of campaigning that money is the mother's milk of politics.  It may not correlate perfectly that he who has the gold rules, but it is certainly true that, without the gold, it is next to impossible for a campaign to effectively communicate with voters.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that the pursuit of the almighty campaign dollar will lead some candidates and their campaigns to be creative, others to wander into gray areas of campaign-finance laws, and a few to overtly break the rules.  Sadly, this is, for many, a winning strategy as paying the relatively small penalty for breaking the law -- long after the votes have been counted -- has proven to be just a cost of doing business in winning elections.

In recent election cycles we have seen (and heard complaints about) candidates spending their own money.  We have seen campaigns evade donation limits with reciprocal donations from donors who have already given the legal maximum -- a donor who has "maxed out" to candidate Smith will give to candidate Jones while a candidate who had "maxed out" to candidate Jones will then give to candidate Smith.  We have seen campaigns fail to disclose late donations or fail to report certain campaign expenditures.  We have seen campaigns launder donations through straw donors to evade finance limits or disguise the origins of contributions.  We have seen campaigns utilize the (supposedly) uncoordinated spending of outside groups to influence their races.  We have seen campaigns spend money that was legally dedicated to a general election during the primary election.

What do all of the campaigns employing the creative, shady, or downright illegal activities have in common?  They were all shrewd to do so.

Elections are zero-sum games: the candidate who wins by a single vote gets to use ALL the power of the office, while the candidate who loses by a single vote gets nothing.  By contrast, the penalty for violating campaign-finance laws -- including fines and some level of public shame (assuming the media actually reports the shenanigans) -- is a relatively small one.  Offending candidates don’t lose their birthdays or have to resign their office.  Even more disturbing, assuming rule violations or crimes are uncovered, penalties are not imposed for months or even years after an election is concluded.  Some violations of campaign-finance laws take years to adjudicate and do not get resolved until long past the term of office in question.

It's "do the crime, pay the fine, then serve your time (in office)."

What would it take to make a positive change?  First, there needs to be enforcement in real time -- fines that take money away from other election activities and generate negative press during the campaign would make a difference.  Today, potential cheaters know that any comeuppance comes long after the campaign is over.  Second, the punishments must be more severe.  Instead of fines representing a fraction of illegal spending, the fines must be many times the amount of the violation.  Today's meaningless fines are just made up over crab claws at the incumbent's next fundraiser.  Finally, for knowing, willful, and intentional schemes to break the law, participating candidates must forfeit the right to take office.  If candidates know they can't both cheat and win, they'll make sure their campaigns stay on the right side of the law.

However, until the laws are changed and penalties for cheating strengthened, bending or breaking the rules will continue to be -- plain and simple -- a winning strategy.