The complicated relationship between campaign finance and democracy

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Caroline Hunter
Caroline Hunter

In the United States, voting is a very private act. You step into the booth alone and, for a lot of people, it’s considered taboo to tell someone who you voted for. Campaign donations, however, are a different story.

The Federal Election Commission, an independent regulatory agency established after Watergate, collects donor infomration from candidates, makes it available to the public, and enforces federal campaign finance laws. Anyone can go online and look up records to see who gave money to a particular candidate — to a point, anyway.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that political spending was protected under the First Amendment. The decision opened the door to “dark money” groups that allow corporations and other organizations to give to a Political Action Committee (PAC) that in turn backs a candidate. Much of this spending is not publicly disclosed and it added up to more than $500 million in the 2018 midterms.

FEC Chair Caroline Hunter joins us this week to explore the relationship between campaign finance and democracy. Hunter has been on the commission since 2008 and has seen the impact of the Citizens United ruling firsthand. She makes an interesting connection between PACs and political polarization — and how it all ties back to democratic participation.

Caroline is a Penn State alumna and, prior to joining the FEC, she worked for the Republican National Committee. The FEC is a bipartisan commission with three Republicans and three Democrats, though two positions are currently vacant. Caroline talks about how that bipartisan nature might expand to other parts of the government and who reads FEC filings.

Additional Information

Federal Election Commission website

Citizens United v. FEC

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What impact do you think the Citizens United ruling had on campaigns in America?
  • Should people be able to donate to a particular issue group without their names being made public?
  • Would the public sharing of donors names prevent you from giving to a particular campaign?
  • Are you worried about “dark money?”
  • What changes, if any, would you like to see made to campaign finance regulation?

Interview Highlights

What is the mission of the FEC?

Hunter: Many think that the Federal Election Commission has control over election administration, which it does not. State elections are run by state and local governments.

What does the day to day work of the commission look like?

Hunter: It receives many complaints from the public about things people see in campaigns around they country. When we see a case that seems to have merit, we’ll investigate and come to a determination as to whether or not campaign laws were violated. This is really the bulk of our work.

What sorts of things do you tend to see in these complaints?

Hunter: There are trends in each cycle. Two cycles ago we got a lot of complaints regarding presidential hopefuls who weren’t properly reporting their campaign fundraising. We’re still actually working through some of those now.

What is the time frame from the filing of a complaint to an official ruling from the commission?

Hunter: There is a statutory 60 day deadline to get the investigation conclusion back to the public. If it’s a matter relating to a campaign, we have to provide result within 30 days. The enforcement division takes more time. It can take up to several years. This time spans is due to due process protections afforded the accused. This can included responses from the accused and additional investigations. These investigations can take a good period of times.

In some of the longer investigations, it could be the case that a candidate has already won the race. How does this factor in to eventually punishing someone who violated campaign laws?

Hunter: It’s difficult to come to a conclusion on a complaint before the end of the race because so many are made right before the end of the election. Therefore, many times the race will have ended before we come to a conclusion on a particular complaint.

There are currently open seats on the commission. How does this vacancy impact the work that you do?

Hunter: The commission has three members of each party. For anything to happen, you must receive court votes from these six people. This means the decision has to be bipartisan. I thin this is good because it prevents one party from taking over the commission. It is something the federal government should consider doing in other parts of the government. Most of our decisions actually come to a bipartisan result. Only rarely do we see a three to three split.

How has your work changed since the Citizens United ruling?

Hunter: That ruling and others have enabled more people to become involved in politics. The citizens ruling enabled corporations to engage more by running commercials for or against candidates. When people think of a corporation, they often imagine a massive company like Starbucks. However, included under the title of corporations are interest groups and grass roots movements that are often coded under the tax law as corporations. I think this is a good thing for democracy. While they are limited as to what they can do, they are now able to engage more in the political process.

Do you worry that some campaigns are becoming too large to effectively regulate?

Hunter: There certainly has been an increase in the amount of money raised. However, I don’t think this is necessarily a problem. Much of this money is raised from individual donors through the campaigns website. You could look at this as increased democratic participation. However, one concern that many have is that these groups will get so large that they won’t really be impacted by the fines that we may place upon them.

The commission is about 40 years old. Do you think it has kept with the world around it?

Hunter: I think we have. Our mission of highlighting who is donating to federal elections has not changed and we’re still effectively accomplishing that. When you talk to people from other countries, they’re amazed at our systems and what we’re able to do

Is there an organization similar to the FEC that follows complains about voter suppression and voter fraud?

Hunter: There is sort of a group that does that work. It is called the Election Assistance Commission. It doesn’t have a lot of power. It is still really run by the state governments. I think it actually makes sense to keep this policing power at the state level rather than have the federal government get involved with policing state elections.

A term we hear a lot is “dark money.” Can you explain what it is and how it relates to the FEC?

Hunter: After Citizens United, people were concerned that there would be basically unregulated money flowing into campaigns. However, every dollar that goes into super packs is registered with us. Also, corporations have to report all political spending they engage in within two days of doing so. Your “dark money” is coming from 501c(4) groups. They’re able to spend politically where as they weren’t able to before this court ruling. Again, I think this is good for democracy because it enables greater participation in the political process. The reason these donations are referred to as “dark money” is because the identification of donors to these groups is not reported to the commission. The reason for this is that they’re not political committees. They are referred to as issue advocacy groups, like the NRA or the Sierra Club. Groups like this are seen as not existing primarily for the purpose of political activity. This is actually the topic of serious debate within the commission.

Could this be the future of political donations?

Hunter: I think it could. One reason is that people would like to donate to a particular cause without facing public harassment. There is a wave of hostility right now from a particular side of the isle where there is blowback on someone if they give to a certain organization.

Do you have any interaction with members of Congress?

Hunter: In my experience, those in Congress are not very interested in talking about campaign finance law. This is largely due to the fact that we regulate all of their campaigns.

Do you think that relationship has an impact on democracy?

Hunter: While I don’t think it necessarily impacts democracy, I think it would be useful to have the two sides be in closer communication.

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