Brennan Center Launches Online Database of Empirical Evidence on Money in Politics

April 18, 2017

The confirmation of Neil M. Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court challenges citizens, lawmakers, and others concerned about the influence of big money in politics to bolster their efforts. While super PACs, the growth of secret spending, and the dominance of elections by a handful of wealthy donors may seem like fundamental features of American politics, they are for the most part relatively recent phenomena, and can be traced to just a few 5 to 4 decisions by the Supreme Court.

The controlling opinions in many of these cases share one important characteristic: they pay surprisingly little attention to facts. Specifically, they often ignore questions about how money actually impacts the political process. In the landmark Citizens United case, for instance, the Court lacked any factual basis for its important conclusion that “independent expenditures . . . do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” That assertion was unsupported, like many others that have shaped recent campaign finance law, and was central to the Court’s decision to lift longstanding federal restrictions on independent spending by outside groups.

Based on the doctrine of stare decisis, the Court is generally reluctant to overturn past precedent. The longer these decisions stand, however, the greater the record available for challenging them by showing a future court that the crucial assumptions underpinning their holdings were wrong. What’s more, in areas where the Court has not strictly constrained reform efforts — especially disclosure and public financing — additional evidence about what works, what doesn’t, and why, is always valuable.   

To this end, we’ve launched our Money in Politics Empirical Evidence Database, a resource for social science and other fact-based research relevant to the key legal issues of campaign finance. The evidentiary conclusions in the database provide reformers and policy makers with research that can inform efforts to advance reasonable regulations, aid litigators seeking to build records justifying campaign finance laws, and offer journalists and scholars a basis for exploring the impact of money on our electoral process. Users can search the database for specific terms, or browse findings by category.

To better understand the Court’s approach to evidence in this area — and for more details about the research summarized in the database — see our paper, Developing Empirical Evidence for Campaign Finance Cases. In it we discuss the Court’s approach, ways evidence may change outcomes, and the findings of research we catalogue in the database. The report also outlines ideas for future research that can build upon the existing scholarship to support the development of a campaign finance jurisprudence that better reflects the reality of American politics.