Hardly anyone needs reminding that the campaign finance landscape has changed dramatically in the past few elections. A big part of the story is spending by corporations through Political Action Committees (PACs) that not only contribute to campaigns but spend unlimited amounts separately from the campaign and invariably affect the outcome of elections.
PACs are supposed to disclose who their donors are, but there is creative accounting to get around that. Corporations with an aversion to disclosure have found these organizations to be the perfect vehicle for influencing elections while avoiding public scrutiny.
There is little doubt substantial sums of money are being used to wield influence in our political system. Politicians spend far too much time fund-raising because not doing so puts them at a distinct disadvantage during a campaign. When large sums of money heavily influence the results of an election, it undermines what most of us believe should be "government of, for and by the people" and transforms it into "the best democracy money can buy." This violates one of our core principles: political equality. If we believe in "one person, one vote," we must fight for it.
Recent studies have shown that politicians listen to their large donors, not to their constituents, and corporate donors receive $760 back for every dollar they donate. We have to draw the line, here in Salt Lake City. Unless conservative and liberal policy makers can agree on sensible campaign finance reform, and voters elect candidates to office who are not beholden to big money and corporate interests, too many voices in our community will be silenced
Yet that is precisely where we seem to be headed with the growing role of PACs as financial supporters in political candidates' campaigns. The Supreme Court's Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions granted corporations the First Amendment right as persons and allowed unfettered amounts of money into politics in the name of "free speech." The result is that with every election our democracy is eroded by the corrosive effect of big money.
In Utah, any candidate can receive thousands of dollars from special-interest groups. One can imagine how much this money can influence the actions of someone in office. As your editorial noted, it may all be perfectly legal, but it doesn't make for good government.
It's time we used simple, common sense solutions for transparency and accountability in government. We need to make it clear to our elected leaders and political candidates that there is no room for dark money in our Utah elections. I have sponsored legislation at the Salt Lake City Council that limits contributions and eliminates the carryover of "war chests" from one election to another. This is a community-based effort led by the Move to Amend group that gathered nearly 9,000 signatures and won 87 percent of the vote to support overturning Citizens United.
While we are beholden to federal decisions on this issue, locally we can make legal and ethical changes that are meaningful to the integrity of our elections. In the meantime, I call on people to vote for candidates who resist the corporate undermining of democracy.
Luke Garrott is a Salt Lake City Council member and recent mayoral candidate.