The role of money in local American politics

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2022-03-15

Authors

Humphrey, Colby Scott

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Issues related to money in American politics have long received widespread national attention, particularly among those fearing the outsized role of political spending on elections. Campaign finance regulations have evolved as a patchwork of legislation and court precedent speaking to these concerns, with substantial variation in scope and enforcement across the states. Regrettably, research is lacking in municipal contests, where the risk of undue influence through campaign contributions and spending could be of more pressing concern given four inter-related factors:

  1. Low voter knowledge about candidates,
  2. the substantial (and increasing) amounts of money spent on elections,
  3. the proximity local elected officials have to their constituents and donors, and
  4. the varying, often lacking, degree of transparency in the campaign finance regimes in place.

This project examines the role of money in municipal elections, as well as the impact of campaign finance regulations and reforms on election dynamics. I test the proposition that less restrictive campaign finance regulations will lead to more overall candidate spending, resulting in increased turnout. These spending and turnout theories will be juxtaposed with Citizens United-fueled fears of independent expenditures crowding out candidate spending. I present a modified hydraulics theory of campaign finance for local elections and argue that as the price of making independent expenditures is reduced relative to campaign contributions, then money should be observed moving to this more efficient option. While previous work emphasizes the futility of campaign finance restraints, I point to the opposite in the case of independent expenditures in that Citizens United expanded how money could be spent in elections, causing a change in the relative price of political participation through campaign spending via independent expenditures. I will explore the proposition of whether the critics of the Citizens United decision are correct in that spending is shifting towards independent expenditures, fueled by corporate and union spending, and away from candidates in local elections. Last, if Citizens United has damaged American democracy at the local level, one pathway through which this will be found is in lower turnout levels brought about by increases in independent expenditures.

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