$33 million was spent on the LA campaigns. (Photo Credit: Eric Garcetti)
The second largest city in the nation elected Eric Garcetti as its mayor yesterday, but it seems that many residents missed the memo.
The hotly contested race that put the first Jewish person in the Los Angeles Mayor’s office failed to generate much excitement among the city’s 4 million residents.
Of those 4 million, analysts estimate that just one in four of the city’s more than 2 million eligible voters went to the polls. If predictions are correct, this year’s mayoral race will draw the lowest turnout since the 1930’s. Numbers today indicate that 380,000 ballots were cast, which figures out to a paltry 17 percent of eligible voters (far less than the anticipated one-third).
Enthusiasm remains dismally low despite record breaking campaign spending. More than $33 million has been spent on the two-year contest, due in large part to outside expenditure groups, which has brought the campaign finance debate back into center circle.
Roughly 40 percent of the money collected in support of the two mayoral candidates was provided by external groups, diluting the city’s strict campaign contribution limit of $1,300 per individual or corporation. Not required to abide by the city’s ethics law, independent expenditure groups can raise an unlimited amount of funding per election cycle, but are prohibited from coordinating with candidate campaigns.
Some argue that money doesn’t matter, but Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson disagrees.
“Heavy spending can crowd out other voices and harm the diversity of the debate,” she explained. “It drives the campaign narrative, the issues that are being discussed and what the candidates talk about.”
Additionally, the rising influx of campaign money can undermine the democratic principal of one person, one vote. Large political donors expect a return on their investment and can often exert a greater influence on policy-making than the average voter.
The issues important to special interest groups do not necessarily overlap those in the public interest. In an election where less than one-fifth of eligible voters actually voted, it would be particularly easy to ignore the concerns of the general electorate.
Full campaign finance disclosure is the best way to level the playing field. It ensures that elected officials feel held accountable to voters and not special interests.
To confidently make an informed decision at the ballot box, voters need to know who is funding who and why. If money is speech, as the Supreme Court has ruled, Levinson says, “it’s really important for the public to know who is speaking.” Californians deserve to know who is trying to influence elections.
California’s campaign finance disclosure laws are among the strictest in the country, yet last year’s anonymous $11 million out of state donation proves that large donors are able to secretly funnel money into California elections through nonprofits.
In the era of the SuperPAC, full disclosure requires laws to “pierce the corporate veil” and reveal the people or entities behind the campaign expenditures, not just the name of the organization. The good news is California’s political watchdog, the FPPC, has shown a commitment to bringing these anonymous independent expenditures into the light, which is exactly what it did in the case of the $11 million from Arizona (with the help of California Common Cause).
Voters require full disclosure and easy accessibility to campaign finance information in order to be able to make informed decisions at the polls. As an ever-increasing amount of money floods into elections, ensuring campaign finance transparency will help keep the influence it wields on elections results and policy-making in check.