Big-Money Elections Unconstitutional?
by Lewis Pitts
The reality that big money in electoral politics has undermined public confidence in government hardly needs documenting. The cost of running for and winning an elected seat has skyrocketed. The vast majority of North Carolina General Assembly races are won by the candidate raising and spending the most money. Any honest assessment raises crucial issues of corruption and rule by the rich.
Former N.C. Attorney General, now Governor, Mike Easley,
along with 21 other state attorneys general and eight Secretaries of State,
submitted an amicus brief to the Federal Court of Appeals for the
Sixth Circuit in March 1997 in support of an Ohio limit on campaign spending
in judicial races. Their brief stressed the "negative impact of fund-raising
on the performance of public officials" and "public distrust
of government because campaign finance issues adversely affect all government
officials." To sum up the severity of the problem, the brief proclaimed:
"that our system of governance is confronted with a blight so serious
that the electoral process itself - and the First Amendment right
of our citizens to participate in it - is surely being undermined.
The huge amounts of money required to seek and win election to public
office and the appearance of corruption attendant thereto threaten fundamental
democratic principles." (Emphasis added.)
The Federal Appellant court denied their plea based upon
Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court case incorrectly
cited for the notion that campaign spending has absolute protection under
the free speech clause.
The Situation in North Carolina
If a person cannot demonstrate the ability to raise large
amounts of money, he or she is not considered a viable potential candidate,
regardless of qualifications or popular support. Persons with views or
interests inconsistent with those of business or wealth are denied meaningful
participation. Voters with such views and interests are likewise denied
a meaningful opportunity to have a candidate of their choice even on the
ballot. Hence, electoral debate and public policy favors the wealthy.
The non-wealthy may have a technical "vote" on election day,
but no meaningful voice.
Plutocracy Is Against the Law
Here may be one of the best kept secrets ever: Read what
Buckley actually says about the alleged First Amendment right to
"...neither the right to associate nor the right
to participate in political activities is absolute [and]...even significant
interference with protected rights of political association my be sustained
if the State demonstrates a sufficiently important interest and employs
means closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms."
In 1990 even the Request Court reaffirmed the compelling
state interest to combat corruption and the appearance of corruption.
In Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce the court upheld
the statute making criminal the expenditure of corporate general funds
in state elections. The criminal penalty was necessary not just to deal
with the overt quid pro quo type of corruption, but a valid response to
a "different type of corruption in the political arena: the corrosive
and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated
with the help of the corporate form and that have little or no relationship
to the public's support for the corporation's political ideas."
The ramifications of that admission are profound.
But because relief under the federal constitution has not been forthcoming despite such compelling law and logic, North Carolina is the site of a first-of-its-kind lawsuit using the state constitution to challenge the current system of private money financing public campaigns.
Lewis Pitts is Director
of the Mental Health Unit of Legal Services of North Carolina in Raleigh
and represents a low-income voter in the lawsuit. The opinions expressed
in this article are his and not necessarily those of Legal Services of
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