November 13, 2016; St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Associated Press)
Missouri passed a constitutional amendment that caps the amount of money one donor can directly give to a candidate at $2,600 and political parties at $25,000. This is an effort to stem an overly heavy influence by large donors on the electoral process. Some donors are concerned, however, that it does not go far enough.
The amendment does not restrict the alternative channels through which a donor can contribute. These include 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which can lobby and give to Super PACs which cannot coordinate with candidates or parties but do not face any caps on spending. This is increasingly known as “dark money,” in that it is difficult to trace the donor or their motives.
The article offers a particularly concerning workaround:
Wealthy contributors can create an unlimited number of political action committees that each can give the maximum donations to candidates and parties. So while a supporter can only cut a check to a candidate for $2,600, that donor could set up 100 PACs that in turn funnel $260,000 to that candidate.
Furthermore, skeptics are concerned that donor use of 501(c)(4)s and Super PACs would actually lead to more donor control over election issues since these donors would not be surrendering their money for candidates to use at their discretion.
While it will not end the influence of “dark money,” Missouri’s amendment essentially raises the costs and effort of influencing the outcomes of elections. Concerns of workarounds seem to be a little overblown, mostly because these avenues are not new. Let us look at the two primary concerns discussed in the article:
Wealthy contributors will create unlimited numbers of PACs that will give the maximum amount to its candidate. In theory, sure, there is no limit on the number of PACs one contributor can legally make. That does not mean that the contributor can financially form as many PACs as they would like, and that goes beyond budget constraints. While it may not be particularly expensive to establish a PAC, it costs something. By forcing a donor that wishes to impact an election to curry favor with a candidate to do so, the Missouri amendment increases the cost of doing so. That is surely a step in the desired direction.
Wealthy contributors will have a bigger impact on the election, since they can push their own agendas using Super PACs. If wealthy contributors wanted to have a bigger impact through Super PACs, there seems to be little reason why they do not already do so. If it is such a valuable thing to work without coordinating with a candidate, why do any donors who want to push a particular issue even bother donating to a candidate at all?
To be sure, the electoral process is a negative-sum game. All parties spend money to, for lack of a better word, purchase a victory, but only one position is available. The money spent by the losing party could have been spent for more productive uses. Efforts to curb campaign donations encourage donors to use their money elsewhere. This amendment could end up benefiting 501(c)(4) organizations in Missouri, if that is where donors choose to focus their efforts. The issue now becomes empirical.
Ultimately, this amendment will not stop the flow of “dark money” in campaign financing. It does take a step toward that end, however, by making donors work harder to directly give to candidates. Further amendments that target existing workarounds could help slow the flow of dark money into elections, but the one thing that will end it is voter distaste for it. Voters often say they want campaign finance reform, but when it comes to their candidate against the world, their candidate needs all the help they can get.—Sean Watterson