Investigative
7:00 am
Mon February 20, 2012

Money Talks: But is it free speech?

This election year, money will drive the conversation in politics more than usual because of  recent Supreme Court decisions. They opened the floodgates of cash, allowing groups called Super PACs to spend unlimited amounts in support of federal candidates. We’re getting just a small sampling during the presidential primary.  This fall, Michigan will see a lot of money from outside the state coming in to buy tons of ads—most of them negative—to sway voters here.

Money can’t vote. But it certainly can affect the outcome of an election. And that bothers voters such as William Mayor.

“To my opinion at least, it’s reducing the effect of my vote.”

Mayor says he still votes… every election. And he does his homework.

“I know I spend some time researching and trying to figure out what’s truly in my best interest or who’s truly in my best interest, but I know an awful lot of people who just go with the sound bites.”

You know what he means---sound bites, negative ads:

"But Romney himself made a fortune. Corporate greed. Medicare fraud. Sound familiar?" "So, how will Santorum beat Obama? Obama knows he can't." "On leadership and character, Newt Gingrich is no Ronald Reagan."

Yeah, yeah. That’s enough. We’ll hear plenty of that this year.

Not all voters are like William Mayor.  Some seem to be throwing up their hands in disgust and just not voting.

Lower voter turnout in the presidential primary elections in other states is being blamed on the negative campaign ads and the tons of money being spent by Super PACs.

Even political insiders are wary of all the new money being spent on political campaigns allowed by the Supreme Court cases Citizens United and Speech Now.

Joe Schwarz is a former Member of Congress and a former Michigan state legislator.

“Well, the system of checks and balances is completely gone. Citizens United was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The amount of money that is going to come in here is obscene.”

LG: So, what’s the harm to the voter? You know, we can see that it would cause more cynicism, but...

JS: “Ever the master  of understatement on that one.” 

LG: But what’s the real harm here?   

JS: “The harm is that the voter is not getting straight information.”

At least not from the ads. And too many people depend almost entirely on those political ads to make their decisions in the voting booth.

Rich Robinson is with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a watchdog group.

“Well, the harm in this is that we have degenerated to this new definition of democracy where, ‘my billionaire can whoop your billionaire,’ and I’m not sure that’s sitting well with the American public.”

Robinson says all of this money is a corrupting influence on politics, especially since many of the contributors remain anonymous or are hidden until after financial disclosures are filed just late enough that voters don’t know who’s bankrolling some of the politicians. He wants not just more transparency, but he wants  more limits on fundraising.

Not everyone feels that way. John Samples is with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. He wrote a book entitled The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform. In it, he argues money isn’t corruption. It simply enables free speech. And curbing the money that makes speech possible is not good for the nation."

“By regulating, restricting, or prohibiting spending, you’re not just regulating property. You also have an effect on the amount of speech, the quantity of speech, or its existence.”

Since the only way to effectively reach voters is through mass media such as television and television campaign ads cost money, Samples says there should be NO restrictions on that speech. He says critics point to the money only as if it could be separated from the speech it makes possible.

“It makes it much more attractive and much less of a shameful act to try to control speech. So, I think it makes possible, when you think about money rather than speech, the language makes possible things that people wouldn’t do otherwise.”

Samples says even people who believe in the First Amendment right to free speech sometimes work against it when they argue the money that makes that speech possible corrupts the political process.

Rich Robinson at the Michigan Campaign Finance Network agrees in part. He says, yes, restricting all money or even quite a bit of money could be viewed as an unconstitutional infringement of their First Amendment rights.

“But, to say you have an unlimited right, you can spend a billion dollars to drive the outcome of an election campaign and, incidentally, drive the policy agenda after election day, is ridiculous! I mean, money is not speech. Money is property. Property corrupts.”

Robinson touches on that voter suspicion that there’s something wrong with all that money coming in from special interests.

And much of that money goes to buy the exaggerations, distortions and outright lies that are often part of the negative campaign ads. Many voters come to the same conclusion:  all politicians are the same: corrupted by money. Some voters are disgusted, disillusioned and disenfranchised. Disgusted by the negative ads, disillusioned by political leaders who stoop to the nasty level of those ads, and disenfranchised because they feel their vote doesn’t count when politics is awash in money from unknown sources.

Not all. Voters such as William Mayor says it’s frustrating, but he’s not cashing in his vote just yet.

“I feel I’m losing a fair amount of influence, but I’m going to keep putting in my two cents worth because if I put in my two cents worth, then at least I’ve got the right to complain.”

LG: (laugh) I like that.

Mayor says the way to make his vote count is being a well-informed voter. But, in a time when more information is available to more people than ever, the electorate remains woefully uninformed because they don’t bother to look beyond the political ads for the truth about candidates. Some people spend more time keeping up celebrity gossip or sports statistics, but don’t take the time to learn if a candidate will govern in a way that actually makes life better for the people.