Our Democracy Un-Spun! #4 - Money in Politics

Montana, 1890. Copper magnate William Clark runs for the U.S. Senate. He is not elected. In 1899, however, he wins the Senate seat, but opponents expose the financial corruption and bribery behind his election.

The Senate declares his election null and void. (You can read about the Senate process and the evidence in a digital image of the New York Times from April 24, 1900. If you're needing primary resources for your research, the New York Times Historical Backfile database searches for articles all the way back to 1851.)

In 1912, fed up with the power and corruption of the copper barons (Marcus Daly seen here on the left and William Clark on the right), Montana citizens initiate and pass the Corrupt Practices Act, banning direct spending of corporations in Montana elections. In June, 2012, the United States Supreme Court strikes down the Montana law.

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia stood with Montana in the effort to prevent the striking down of state laws that restrict corporate campaign spending. The court's action reasserts their 5-4 2010 Citizens' United decision that corporations and labor unions have First Amendment rights to free speech, and that they cannot be banned from independent expenditures prior to elections.

The controversy over campaign spending is not new. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt addressed his concerns in his State of the Union Message. “The need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish if Congress provided an appropriation for the proper and legitimate expenses of each of the great national parties.” He also recommended banning political contributions from corporations to presidential campaigns. You'll find more history of the ups and downs of the campaign finance debate, the various laws and regulations that were passed, and their undoing at Campaign  Finance: An Overview. By: Gutierrez, Michael; Walter, Andrew. Points of View: Campaign Finance. 2011.

The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) was passed in 1971, and the Federal Election Commission was created in 1975 to enforce the FECA law. It also established and administers public funding for presidential elections since 1976. Taxpayers can check the appropriate box on their annual tax returns, and the money goes into the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Additional campaign funding donations are limited by the FECA. Candidates must meet specific requirements to be eligible for these funds.

The Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission removed the limitation on corporate financing of federal elections, and the Montana case reaffirmed that position. As a result, money is pouring into the campaigns and their associated political action committees (PAC's) in record amounts this year. Some see this is a long awaited example of free speech in action. Others say it will have a corrupting impact on our election process. In any case, it is your right to know who and what is driving the spending, so next time we'll talk about PACs and SuperPACs, and we'll zero in on some of the money on the national scene and in Colorado.

You might like to check out these books:

You'll find more essentials for Elections here. And if you have questions or want assistance finding reliable information on this or any topic, contact our Reference Services Department on Level 3 of the Central Library, 720-865-1363 or email a reference question.

Written by Elaine on September 7, 2012

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