Op-Ed: Why Limiting Campaign Spending Will Not Resolve Political Inequality

Written by Yael Atzmon

Every election cycle, televisions all over the country are subject to an endless barrage of campaign related media. Nowadays, campaigns require an inane amount of funds and resources to produce the kind of advertisements that flood American media outlets. While activists and policymakers propose straight-forward policy that limits campaign expenditure, the implementation of such policy can further entrench political inequality. Instead, Americans should consider the complete dynamics of campaign finance in order to design more effective campaign finance reform. 

While campaigning has never been a cheap endeavor, the court case Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission (2010) completely dismantled limits on campaign financing activity for unions and corporations. This new decision has contributed to a massive increase in campaign spending over the years through the creation of PACs and Super PACs (Arke & Robinson, 2019). 

PACs and Super PACs are specific types of political committees that “raise or spend more than $1,000 to influence the outcome of a federal election in a calendar year and [are] thus required to register with the Federal Election Commission (FEC)” (paras. 2-3). While PACs have a limit on the amount they are able to accept from any individual, Super PACs do not have this limit. Dark Money Groups are 501(c)(4) and c(6) organizations that can accept unlimited contributions as long as this is not considered their primary activity. They are allowed to contribute to Super PACs but not directly to a candidate (CLC, 2018). 

Although campaign finance has been fueled by more money recently, this phenomenon alone might not be cause for huge alarm. After all, the increase could be attributed to more participation in campaign funding efforts, perhaps through PACs. There are darker implications to this increase when we consider that those involved in raising money for political campaigns are not completely representative of the American public. According to Sean Mcelwee et. al (n.d.), “91 percent of federal election donors in 2012 and 92 percent of donors in 2014 were white” (p. 1) and white men specifically “comprise 45 percent of donors and account for 57 percent of money contributed” (p.2). 

This overrepresentation of certain demographic groups is especially concerning when paired with evidence that being a donor can lead to greater access to elected officials once they are in office. Indeed, “senior policy makers made themselves available between three and four times more often” for individuals they knew were campaign donors (p. 545) (Kalla & Broockman, 2016). If donors, who are mostly white men, are able to speak with policy makers and thus make their voices louder in the political process, the current campaign finance system seems antithetical to democracy.

The majority of Americans (77%) apparently agrees and believes that “there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and groups can spend on campaigns” (para. 3) (Jones, 2018). Yes, something must be done. However, simply mandating limits on contributions is an extremely contrived solution to a very complex issue. 

While it is easy to assume that enforcing expenditure limits will reduce the influence of money across the board, the evidence suggests that this is simply not the case. The differentiation in campaign spending impact is especially potent when examining the usefulness of campaign spending value for incumbents and challengers distinctively. While spending more money leads to a higher incidence of success, on average, for challengers, the same is not true for incumbents (Vavreck, 2014). The explanation for this can be drawn to a basic economic concept: decreasing marginal returns for every dollar spent. In introductory economics, this means that the more a consumer buys, the less value they will get out of each additional good. The same logic applies to campaign finance, at least for incumbents. For incumbents, each additional dollar they spent is yielding less and less value in terms of helping them win their race. For challengers however, the more money they spend, the more likely they are to win (Vavreck, 2014). 

Incumbents benefit less from campaign spending partially because they are already familiar to voters. Conversely, challengers need to make themselves known in order to compete and thus profit politically from the extra spending (Vavreck, 2014). Thus, any kind of campaign finance that limits the amount of money being spent on campaigns point blank, will likely hinder challengers from overcoming incumbents. In this way, limiting the amount of money spent on campaigns could have unintended adverse effects and may even conglomerate power into the hands of those already in office. Additionally, simply limiting the amount of money being spent on campaigns will not address the fundamental issue which is not necessarily how much is being spent but rather who, and who is not, able to spend money in this way. 

So, really, a fundamental issue in campaign finance reform has to do with access and implementing policy that includes more individuals in the evidently influential process of financing campaigns. Seattle instated such a policy where the city sent out ‘democracy vouchers’ to residents in 2017. These ‘democracy vouchers’ enable each resident, regardless of whether they are registered voters, to donate to the candidate of their choice. Additionally, there were stipulations to candidates who decided to accept these democracy vouchers such as the requirement that they only accept cash donations less than $250 (Kliff, 2018). This program, which the city agreed to fund through an increase of property taxes, represents a good example of a policy that attempts to diversify and include more Americans in the campaign finance realm. When the program was implemented in Seattle, “84% of democracy voucher donors had never given to a campaign before”(para. 9). While incumbents may have a hard time securing these kinds of vouchers due to the issues of recognition mentioned previously, a program such as this could also allow those who might not have had the financial resources to fund a campaign, a chance to participate in politics. For example, Teresa Mosequeda, a non-wealthy individual running for office in Seattle, went door to door in order to promote her campaign, which ultimately consisted mostly of democracy vouchers (Kliff, 2018).

In this way, a quasi-public campaign financing scheme, which was inspired by Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig’s Op-Ed “More Money Can Beat Big Money,” could alleviate some of the concerns of simply limiting campaign finance donations. It could also incentivize challengers to appeal to everyday Americans with democracy vouchers rather than corporations or wealthy individuals as is the case currently. 

Overall, campaign finance reform must be pursued in a nuanced and thoughtful manner rather than simply advocating for a limit to campaign financing. While a ‘democracy voucher’ program does not completely alleviate hurdles for incumbents nor eliminate the stark political inequality of today, it could include more individuals in the campaign financing process, incentivize candidates to appeal to a wider range of people, and even alleviate the financial burden of campaigns for lower income individuals interested in campaigning. By inviting individuals into the campaign process, both as candidates and as constituents, thoughtful campaign reform ideas such as the ‘democracy vouchers’ program could bring the United States closer to a more true and fair democracy. 


Arke, K. E. R. & Robinson, L. (2019, January 21). A look at the impact of Citizens United on its 9th anniversary. Open Secrets. https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2019/01/citizens-united/ 

CLC Advancing Democracy through Law. (2018, June 20). PACs, Super PACs & Dark Money Groups: What’s the Difference. https://campaignlegal.org/update/pacs-super-p acs-dark-money-groups-whats-difference 

Jones, B. (2018, March 8). Most Americans want to limit campaign spending, say big donors have greater political influence. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2018/05 /08/most-americans-want-to-limit-campaign-spending-say-big-donors-have-greater-political-influence/ 

Kalla, J. L., & Broockman, D. E. (2016). Campaign Contributions Facilitate Access to Congressional Officials: A Randomized Field Experiment. American Journal of Political Science, 60(3), 545–558. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24877480 

Kliff, Sarah. (2018, November 5). Seattle’s radical plan to fight big money in politics. Vox. https://www.vox.com/2018/11/5/17058970/seattle-democracy-vouchers 

Lessig, L. (2011, November 16). More Money Can Beat Big Money. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/17/opinion/in-campaign-financing-more-money-can-beat-big-money.html 

Mcelwee, S. Schaffner, B. Rhodes, J. (n.d.). Whose Voice, Whose Choice? Demos. (https://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/Whose%20Voice%20Whose%20Choice_2.pdf 

Oyez. (n.d.). Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission. https://www.oyez.org/cases/2008/08-205 

Vavreck, L. (2014, October 7). A Campaign Dollar’s Power Is More Valuable to a Challenger. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/08/upshot/a-campaign-dollars-power-is-more-valua ble-to-a-challenger.html