A Survey of Existing Efforts to Reform the Campaign Finance System

January 1, 1998

Campaign Finance Reform Series: This paper is one of a series of papers issued by the Brennan Center for Justice exploring issues of money and politics.

Money and politics are a volatile mix. When the mix gels properly, it funds the enormous amount of speech and information needed by voters in a complex democracy. When the mix sours, it decays into corruption, undue influence, and political inequality. Not surprisingly, the debate over campaign finance reform revolves around three principal concerns: (1) assuring that enough money is available to finance abroad array of political speech, especially by challengers; (2) preventing wealthy interests from exercising too much influence over elected officials; and (3) providing less wealthy candidates a fair opportunity to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

Opponents of campaign finance reform have many worries. Most often stated is a concern that excessive government regulation of campaign financing will dry up the money needed to fuel political speech at a time when what we really need is more, not less, serious discussion of political issues. Why, opponents ask, should we make it even harder to finance the democratic process adequately - especially challenges to entrenched incumbents - when the combined political spending of all candidates for public office is still less than the annual advertising budget for deodorants?

According to reformers, campaign finance regulation is necessary, first, to prevent wealthy contributors from buying favorable treatment from public officials; and, second, to “level the playing field” by equalizing the political power of rich and poor voters. How, reformers ask, can we tolerate a campaign finance system that allows wealthy
donors and special interests to play a disproportionate role in electing and influencing our public officials?