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Rosenfield hosts political symposium

Michael Malbin speaks to the Grinnell Community in JRC 101 about money in politics as part of the Committee’s Campaign Finance Symposium. Photo by Xiaoxuan Yang
Michael Malbin speaks to the Grinnell Community in JRC 101 about money in politics as part of the Committee’s Campaign Finance Symposium. Photo by Xiaoxuan Yang

Michael Cummings, Community Editor

In 2015, 78 donors each gave $1 million and accounted for nearly one quarter of all money donated in political campaigns, according to a speaker during the Campaign Finance Symposium, hosted by the Rosenfield Program Committee.

Experts on campaign finance from a variety of fields and professions came to Grinnell this week to participate in the symposium. They approached the topic from many different angles, addressing campaign finance problems and discussing possible solutions.

“It was actually a student that proposed the symposium about a year ago. The committee generally thought it was a great idea, and as you know with the Sanders campaign and other events in the news, campaign finance has been a pretty prominent issue around here,” said Rosenfield Committee leader and Professor Ed Cohn, History.

The issue of campaign finance has become particularly pervasive in the last six years since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which ruled that for-profit organizations are permitted to donate unlimited amounts of money to support political campaigns under the First Amendment. Critics of the decision argue that it allows for Political Action Committees or PACs to essentially buy elections by donating tremendous sums to a candidate who will act in their favor.

“With the current climate on issues of new sources of money and unregulated money and closely competitively elections, [it’s] probably even more important now than ever,” said Professor Barbara Trish, Political Science.

The Citizens United decision sparked many prominent professors, journalists, lawyers and other concerned people to give intense scrutiny to money in politics. The issue is particularly timely now as select Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are refusing to accept money from Super PACs.

“What we’re seeing is one family, the Koch brothers, and a few of their friends spending $900 million in this election cycle,” said presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during his most recent visit to Grinnell. “That is more money than the Democrats or the Republicans are spending. My friends, you’re not looking at a democracy, you are looking on an oligarchy.”

The symposium kicked off with a keynote speech by Michael Malbin on Tuesday, Feb. 9. Malbin is a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany as well as the Executive Director of the Campaign Finance Institute, the most prominent think tank in the country dealing with money in politics.

Malbin’s talk focused on where the money spent on elections comes from, numbers of donations from small money compared to large money donors and spending from Super PACS.

“Seventy-eight percent of the public would like to see Citizens United overturned, and that includes 80 percent of the Republicans,” Malbin said. “Eighty-seven percent would like to see the system reformed so a rich person doesn’t have more influence than a poor person. Eighty-four percent say money has too much influence and 72 percent favor small-donor public financing including 66 percent of Republicans.”

According to Malbin, one solution that might address this overwhelming concern is the public funding of campaigns. If small donations were matched by public funds, he argued, citizens would have more incentive to donate to campaigns and the power of the ultra-rich would be diminished significantly. However, Malbin acknowledged that this suggestion has downsides.

“Yes, this would cost public money. Which means … we’re talking about tax money. It is money that compared to the system it regulates is tiny, but it is money,” Malbin said, implying that some people would have concerns over the use of taxes to support this program.

“My response is, we’re talking about a public good here, and one that is not terribly expensive,” Malbin said. “It is a public good to think about addressing the systematic biases … to get more people involved, to get small contributions to politicians.”

Malbin said that this plan and similar measures have been implemented at the city level. He pointed to New York, Los Angeles and Seattle as leaders in local-level campaign finance reform. Many students in the audience were intrigued by Malbin’s proposition.

“I thought the focus on the economics of politics … was really important to talk about,” Patrick Armstrong ’18 said. “I would have liked to know what impact that had in the specific cities … and if the constituencies were more satisfied.”

The symposium continued on Wednesday afternoon with a talk by Barry Anderson, an associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. Anderson talked specifically about judicial elections, an area with which he has a lot of both personal experience and scholastic expertise.

Judicial elections are a historical anomaly put in place in many states that joined the union in the mid-to-late 1800s. Rules vary according to the state, but for the Iowa Supreme Court, justices are appointed by the governor and serve 8-year terms before participating in a retention election—where Iowa voters simply vote “yes” or “no” on whether they want that justice to continue to serve.

“Iowa has had experience with a lot of expenditures in retention elections for three Supreme Court justices who were not retained in a recent election,” Anderson said.

In 2010, anti-same-sex-marriage interest groups flooded the state with money in a successful push to oust three justices who helped make same-sex marriage legal.

Anderson also discussed on what money in judicial elections is spent.

“Around 90 percent of that money gets spent on attack ads—the grainy black and white picture that looks like it was taken from some prison magazine,” Anderson said. “Various evils are ascribed to the candidate such that by the time you’re done with the attack ad it’s pretty clear that the subject of the ad would not be loved by anyone including his or her mother.”

Anderson then explained that these advertisements have a lot of influence in elections, and are often misleading and untrue.

The symposium concluded on Thursday with talks by Michael Beckel, a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Nicole Austin-Hillery of the Brennan Center for Justice.

“I find it very interesting that Democrats and Republicans right now are talking about how this system is dysfunctional,” Beckel said. “Democrats and Republicans are talking about how frustrated people are that the system isn’t working for them, certainly something we saw in New Hampshire, with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both doing well in the polls.”

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