The imminent Supreme Court decision in Randall v. Sorrell — the closely watched dispute over the permissibility of highly restrictive campaign spending and contribution limits in Vermont — presents an opportunity to address the disconnect between scholarly research and the conventional wisdom about campaign finance reform.
In short, the most current and best scientific evidence flies in the face of the promises made by reform advocates, and more disturbingly, it reveals that the court jurisprudence upholding campaign finance laws is built on a shaky empirical foundation.
Reform proposals are invariably touted as a way to elevate democracy: higher turnout, improved citizen perceptions of government and increased electoral competition. In a recent Roll Call Guest Observer, Deborah Goldberg of the pro-reform Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School speaks of the “role of contribution limits in combating real and perceived corruption.”
The Supreme Court has recently upheld more severe regulation of campaign financing in the belief that such laws, by reducing the unseemly flow of money in politics, would improve American democracy. Most recently, in McConnell v. FEC, the court appealed to the “eroding of public confidence in the electoral process through the appearance of corruption” to justify limits on contributions to political parties. In a recent public lecture, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer stated that campaign finance laws “seek to democratize the influence that money can bring to bear on the electoral process, thereby building public confidence in the process.”
Tellingly, the court cites only “common sense” and anecdotes to back the claim that campaign finance is critically linked to perceptions of government. The reason: Systematic, scientific evidence does not exist.
In work published in the March 2006 Election Law Journal, we show that there is essentially no connection between the perceptions of government on the one hand and state campaign finance laws on the other. In fact, some types of reforms, such as public funding of candidates in elections, end up having a negative impact on such perceptions.
In an ongoing study, we find a similarly weak link between campaign finance laws and voter turnout, while research by other scholars suggests that increased campaign spending is associated with a better informed electorate and improved perceptions of government.
Finally, the existing empirical evidence on campaign finance reform and electoral competitiveness is at best mixed, with studies finding a modest increase in competitiveness from some laws, but not from others.
In fact, we are aware of no scholarly studies that yield consistent evidence of large and statistically significant effects of campaign finance regulations on electoral competitiveness. Yet in her op-ed, Goldberg misuses some of our own recent research to argue that the Supreme Court needn’t be concerned that Vermont’s low contribution limits may harm electoral competition.
In reality, our study found only that the presence of limits on contributions from individual donors reduced the winning vote margin in gubernatorial elections. We did not estimate the effect of states setting very low contribution limits, as is the case in Vermont. We even cautioned readers explicitly that “we want to be clear that our findings do not suggest that contribution limits cannot have deleterious effects on competition if set too low; our findings here suggest that contribution limits, as enacted in the states, have on net had a modest positive impact on competitiveness. Still, very low limits like those in Vermont, which have concerned even pro-reform Supreme Court Justice Breyer, merit caution.”
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