Drop big-money focus, look for more small stuff, reformer says


By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — As another set of limits on giving money to political candidates fails the constitutional test, one campaign finance reformer says it’s time to look elsewhere.

CASH MONEY: Redfield says campaign finance reformers need to move past a focus on caps.

“You need to figure out ways to get more individual donors, with small contributions, into the systems,” said political science professor Kent Redfield of the University of Illinois at Springfield. “Rather than assuming that, somehow, you can build a firewall between private money and public elections.”

Redfield said a firewall was never likely and is all but impossible now that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down an overall cap on campaign donations.

Redfield has written two books on campaign finance in Illinois and has served as the director of the Sunshine Project, campaign finance reform group.

Redfield said the focus need to shift from caps and limits to real transparency.

“(U.S. senators) and candidates for the Senate, they’re not required to file their campaign finance reports electronically,” Redfield said. “The Federal Elections Commission then has to input them into a database so (voters) can get at them electronically.”

Redfield said the technology is there, “it’s just a matter of political will.”

Instant and complete transparency, Redfield said, would give voters the information they need: Is a candidate being bought or controlled by a campaign donor or outside interest.

“If you’re telling me that Joe Blow is a terrible candidate, it might make a difference to me if the one telling me that is a big labor union or a big oil company,” Refield said.

Other reforms groups in Illinois say caps are absolutely needed.

Illinois Campaign for Political Reform’s executive director David Melton says the latest decision from the nation’s high court is on par with decisions on slavery.

“This decision is sure to skew the focus of congressional candidates towards the interests of the ultra-wealthy in this country and away from the concerns of its ordinary citizens,” Melton said in a statement. “The majority’s failure to acknowledge this fact is likely to one-day rank with the court’s assumption in (Plessy) v. Ferguson that Blacks received ‘separate but equal’ treatment under Jim Crow Laws, in its cluelessness or disingenuity.”

But Redfield counters it’s folly to focus on getting money out of the electoral process.

“This may sound strange as someone who identifies as a political reformer, but I don’t think (getting money out) ultimately should be the goal,” Redfield said. “We need very good disclosure, so that people know what’s going on … And you can match big money with small money.”

Contact Benjamin Yount at Ben@IllinoisWatchdog.org and find him on Twitter @BenYount.