Quasi Campaign Finance
77 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2020 Last revised: 2 Nov 2020
Date Written: February 18, 2020
Say you’re wealthy and want to influence American politics. How would you do it? Conventional campaign finance — giving or spending money to sway elections — is one option. Lobbying is another. This Article identifies and explores a third possibility: quasi campaign finance, or spending money on non-electoral communications with voters that nevertheless rely on an electoral mechanism to be effective. Little is currently known about quasi campaign finance because no law requires its disclosure. But its use by America’s richest and politically savviest individuals — the Koch brothers, Michael Bloomberg, and the like — appears to be rising. It also seems to skew policy outcomes in the spenders’ preferred direction.
After introducing quasi campaign finance, the Article considers its legal status. Is it like ordinary campaign finance, in which case it could be regulated fairly extensively? Or is it like garden-variety political speech, rendering it presumptively unregulable? One argument for pairing quasi and regular campaign finance is that they share several features — who bankrolls them, the tactics they pay for, the reasons they work — and so may serve as substitutes. Another rationale for conflation is that they may both cause the same democratic injuries: corruption, the distortion of public opinion, and the misalignment of public policy. Pitted against these points is the slippery-slope objection: If quasi campaign finance may constitutionally be curbed, what political speech may not be?
Lastly, the Article suggests how quasi campaign finance should (assuming it actually may) be regulated. Limits on contributions and expenditures are unwise and probably unadministrable. Disclosure, though, is a necessity. The public should know who is trying to persuade it (and how). Even more promising is the public subsidization of quasi campaign finance. If every voter received a voucher for this purpose, then public funds might crowd out private capital, thus alleviating its harmful effects.
Keywords: campaign finance, first amendment, election law, constitutional law
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