Pope announces need for campaign finance reform

Pope Francis recently announced he was in support of campaign finance reform, pointing to an issue that has gained particular importance in recent years, specifically due to a number of Supreme Court rulings dealing in the preservation of free speech in combination with promoting fair and uncorrupted elections. “We must achieve a free sort of election campaign, not financed,” the Pope commented in Pope Crux magazine. “Because many interests come into play in financing of an election campaign and then they ask you to pay back. So, the election campaign should be independent from anyone who may finance it.”

A successful campaign relies on communication, which is costly, and with large sums of money come influence and the potential for corruption. Campaign finance laws are intended to halt or at least reduce corruption. Disclosure, contribution limits, and public financing are the main tools for the regulation of campaign finance, and are most often utilized in combination. Disclosure of the amount and origin of contributions and expenditures is required at some level of all candidates, committees and political parties in all states. They vary in detail and frequency of reporting.

Political communications advertisements, including television and radio, that advocate the election or defeat of a candidate and are not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign, are considered independent expenditures. Because these funds are removed from the candidates campaign, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that regardless of the independent expenditure’s source, they do not pose a corruptive threat and therefore cannot be limited. As a result of the rulings, independent spending has witnessed a notable surge in recent years.

However, persons and groups, with the exceptions of Indiana, South Carolina and New Mexico, are required to disclose independent expenditures on the basis that the disclosure is valuable electoral information. There is variability in the requirements of the reporting. Some ask for continuous reports in accordance with a pre-determined schedule, while some ask for reports on expenditures exceeding a specific dollar amount and some implement a combination of both methods.

“In having the kind of campaign financing system that we have now it means that the people that are being represented are the people with the most money in their pockets,” transfer student Mollie Brendan commented. “It’s the people with the most disposable income opposed to the people who really need to be represented.”

The average national limit per election cycle is around $7,500 for gubernatorial candidates, about $3,300 for House candidates and about $3,700 for Senate candidates. Twenty-five states limit corporate contributions to candidates and 21 states ban it outright.

The Supreme Court struck down provisions of the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act meant to limit expenditures in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo when it declared requiring candidates to abide by spending limits a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as it would limit free speech. The exception being optional limits that candidates choose to abide by, in addition to agreeing to limit or cease raising private contributions, usually in exchange for various amounts of state funding. This is the preferred method of 24 states. Despite the practicality of this solution, the utilization of public financing programs is declining, as many states are unable to fully fund candidates.

Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies Frank Alcock said, “Not a lot changed until 2008 when balance on the Supreme Court shifted with the initiation of the Roberts Court […] They’ve gone where no courts have gone before in terms of almost incapacitating the government with respect to ability to regulate campaign finance.”


The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission led to a huge surge in outside spending in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. The case, in addition to a few other legal developments, is responsible for the creation of super PACs, which have the capacity to accept unlimited contributions from corporate, union treasuries and individuals.

An alternative method of public financing, “clean elections” public financing, allows candidates to fund their campaigns almost completely in public funds, so long as they abide by strict spending limits and do not receive any additional funds from private sources. “Clean clections” public financing has been implemented in Arizona, Maine, Vermont and Connecticut for gubernatorial candidates, and for legislative candidates in Arizona and Maine.

However helpful the Roberts Court has been in halting or at the very least limiting corruption via funding, the court defines monetary-based corruption strictly as the direct and provable transfer of funds, and therefore neglects more subtle forms of abuse.

“Transparency has gone way down and I think it has led to a world in which there’s much less political competition,” Alcock commented. “The barriers to actually running for office, you have to raise huge amounts of money, and this is happening in a world where we have gerrymandering and closed primaries which then reduce the number of political districts that are truly competitive, so now the PACs can channel obscene amounts of money into the very few areas that there are competitive strives. We’re talking hundreds of thousands for even a congressional election – millions of dollars to run for the Senate so we’re in a place that I think is very bizarre and troubling.”

Alcock added, “In terms of what can be done about it, there’s a movement to amend the federal constitution which is very difficult but I’m supportive of some of those ideas, and I think there’s things that states can do at the level of trying to increase transparency that hasn’t been ruled completely out of bounds by the Supreme Court. But Congress and states, their hands have largely been tied by the Supreme Court”

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