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The Perils of Private Money in Public Elections

Dolar, El American

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Private money in American elections is nothing new. While referring to the electoral victory of Andrew Jackson in 1828, considered by many to have epitomized the patronage model, a New York senator said, “that to the victor belongs the spoils”. Consequentially, the support and practice of returning favors by way of government positions, contracts, and other mechanisms, instituted a spoils system which grew to epic proportions and so corrupted the exercise of popular sovereignty, that a call for needed regulatory safeguards became a common clamor.      

Private money for public office

In 1867, the Naval Appropriations Bill became the first federal campaign finance law. In this case, it was a prohibition on naval officers and government employees from requesting contributions from Navy personnel. Subsequently, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 extended restrictions on campaign-fund solicitation applied initially to Navy servicemen to the federal civil service. Thereafter, and to this day, numerous federal campaign finance laws, including the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002 or “McCain-Feingold” being the last comprehensive legislation approved, have strived to ameliorate to the woes of private money in the political process of a democracy and the potentiality for influence trafficking, cronyism, nepotism, and a whole host of other undesirables in a free republic.

Up to this point, the challenges facing America’s political system regarding allowing private funds to cover the costs of political campaigns has been accepted as a form of free expression protected by the First Amendment and settled by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010). In other words, the notion of private money geared towards public office holders appears to be here to stay.

Therefore, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) established in 1975 and empowered by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, has a continual presence on the electoral processes in the United States exercising its functions as an independent regulatory body which enforces finance campaign laws and discloses relevant financials regarding political actors. As powerful and important as the FEC role is in American politics, it has ceded a huge space to the states in so far as money is allowed to be “donated” to local governments and county election departments. This is a new and dangerous terrain.

In the 2020 election, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, by way of two of his non-profit organizations, the Center for Technology and Civic Life (“CTCL”) and the Center for Election Innovation and Research (“CEIR”), funneled a total of $419 million into the coffers of targeted counties in select battleground states to assist in the election process by way of grants. Zuckerberg’s pet projects were not alone, although it was the most generous in its political contribution. Other entities which arranged for similar schemes include: The Democracy Fund, New Venture Fund, Skoll Foundation, and Knight Foundation.

Benefactors of this massive outlay of private money insist on its importance in facilitating the election process within their jurisdictions. Bill Turner, acting director of Voter Services in Chester County, Pennsylvania, an outlier county surrounding Philadelphia, credited the $2.5 million Chester County received for the election as “essential”. It paid for additional staff, ballot-scanning machines, protective gear for the workers, and additional rental space accommodation. CTCL alone issued grants to more than 2,500 jurisdictions. The colossal problem with this apparently benevolent gesture is that it specifically targeted jurisdictions which were vital for the Democratic Party. Rural areas and Republican strongholds went mostly ignored by the Zuckerberg election money-giving entities.  

The Amistad Project recently issued “The Legitimacy and Effect of Private Funding in Federal and State Electoral Processes” (“Report”), a thirty-nine page report prepared by Phill Kline of the Thomas More Society. It contains a moral and potentially legal indictment of the employment of private monies under the guise of “grants”, to bypass state and federal election laws. The Report makes a strong argument that the requirements imposed by CTCL for receiving “grants” clearly violated state election laws and overstepped constitutional boundaries. The way in which Zuckerberg’s CTLC selectively extended the monies resulted in, according to the Report, an expenditure of roughly $47 allotted per voter in Democratic strongholds, compared to $4 to $7 in classically Republican jurisdictions.   

The reason Congress has historically determined that campaign finance laws were crucial in attempting to limit political corruption that could ensue when private money is in invested in the political process of a republic, was obvious. Money can buy election results and politicians. NGOs like those belonging to Zuckerberg are ideologically charged and partisan political machines. They operate as Political Action Committees.

The appearance of democracy advocates acting on a non-partisanship basis, and not jaded by worldview prejudices, is pure theatrics. These shadowy organizations should not be allowed to circumvent campaign finance laws and corrupt America’s democracy. The established FEC mechanism this there to attempt to achieve a reasonable process of fair and honest elections and later, a system devoid of corruption. This institutional peril must be addressed.     

Julio M Shiling, political scientist, writer, director of Patria de Martí and The Cuban American Voice, lecturer and media commentator. A native of Cuba, he currently lives in the United States. Twitter: @JulioMShiling // Julio es politólogo, escritor, director de Patria de Martí y The Cuban American Voice. Conferenciante y comentarista en los medios. Natural de Cuba, vive actualmente en EE UU.

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