The NCSL Blog


By Kevin Frazzini

Hard and soft money, dark money, contribution limits, disclosure of donors—we so easily get caught up in the particulars of campaign finance regulation.

Dollars into ballot boxThe panelists at the session “Campaign Finance: What It All Means,” at the annual Legislative Summit in Chicago on Tuesday, encouraged attendees to consider a larger question: What do we value?

For Meredith McGehee, participation is key. Her lobbying and research group, the Campaign Legal Center, argues that the public is being shut out of its democracy because the Federal Elections Commissions and Congress have allowed corporate interests and wealthy individuals to wield an outsized influence in our nominating and elections processes.

“The First Amendment shouldn’t give a right to have the biggest, loudest megaphone,” she said.

Bradley Smith, founder and director of the Center for Competitive Politics, said free speech is paramount and that campaign finance is more regulated now than at any time in our history.

“The law becomes a weapon used in campaigns,” he said, by one candidate to tie up the resources of his or her opponent. The desire to avoid such potential costs, along with the expense of registering a campaign and filing reports once a candidate begins taking contributions, means that regulations hurt the small players most, ultimately limiting their participation—that is, speech—in electoral politics.

Elizabeth Bartz values transparency. Her lobbying group, State and Federal Communications, works to ensure that contributions are made and recorded at the appropriate times, and that donor information, to the extent possible, is available for all to see.

No doubt, every legislator at the Summit could add another value to this list.

Bartz reminded listeners that the regulating campaign finance is a balancing act and that legislation tends to reflect current priorities. Which way will the law tip in the future—toward participation, free speech or transparency? Time will tell.

“2016 might seem like the election year, but there’s going to be another one,” she said.

For more information, see NCSL’s campaign finance webpages, which cover disclosure, contribution limits and legislative enactments.

Kevin Frazzini is the assistant editor of State Legislatures magazine.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.