A lot of noise is being made about the influence of money on American politics. The Democrats, in particular, are complaining. Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that corporations have the same rights as people, and therefore have the right to free speech.
But the question is: why does it cost so much money to inform voters prior to elections? Information is cheaper than it ever has been. Certainly, if each voter were to spend 2 hours googling the candidates before each election, any 30 second TV ads they saw would have little influence on them. It’s not very expensive for a candidate to put together a website outlining their political positions, and there are also websites like “Vote-USA” where candidates can register their positions.
But the problem is, most voters don’t go to such websites, or do any homework before an election. That’s the real problem. While information is cheaper than it ever has been, attention is expensive, and always has been. To get the average voter to watch a 30 second commercial, you have to put it in the middle of an entertaining program. And to create that entertaining TV show means hiring famous actors and having expensive props and sets. And for all that money, you get 30 seconds of halfhearted attention.
So money influences elections.
Steps could be taken to make it easier for voters to do their homework. When I lived in California, every voter there got a printed magazine listing all candidates for all offices they would be voting on, with a statement by each candidate and a rebuttal by their opponent. Now that I’m in New York, we don’t have anything like that and I still haven’t figured out how to find even the names of all the candidates I will be voting on, just so I can google them. There are services like “VOTE-USA” that provide a website that will show you SOME of the candidates, but no one, like local judges, below state assembly offices.
So if New York did what California does (with an opt-out of the printed version so people could just access it all on the web to save trees), things would be tremendously improved.
Is Money Speech?
Suppose I want to influence a presidential election. I live in New York, which is 99% guaranteed to vote Democratic, so knocking on doors to influence voters in New York will have no influence on the national election. But suppose I drive to Pennsylvania, a swing state, to knock on doors for a weekend and talk to people about how to vote. Is that constitutionally guaranteed speech? Nearly everyone would agree that it is.
But there would be expenses. Gasoline to get there and back, hotel bills. But I think everybody would agree that even though I spent this money on expressing my opinions, that’s all guaranteed speech.
Then suppose I can’t make it to Pennsylvania myself because I have a tough job where I work 7 days a week. But I have a lot of money because I work so hard, and my friend Charlie, who shares my opinions, is unemployed. What if I lend him my car and let him stay in my hunting lodge while he’s in Pennsylvania, and use my Exxon credit card for gas. Is that “buying votes” or is that “constitutionally guaranteed speech”? What if I don’t own a car or a hunting lodge, but just give him money to rent a car and stay in hotels?
Suppose I buy air time for a profit-making weekly TV show about politics, that’s is supposed to be a comedy like “The Daily Show”. And in this show I incessantly express political opinions. But the show isn’t as successful as “The Daily Show”, the ratings are poor, and the endeavor loses money. But I keep subsiding the show anyway, because I like the opinions that are being expressed. Is that “buying votes”, “constitutionally guaranteed speech”, or just “an unsuccessful business that I’m trying to turn around”?
What if I have as much money as Rupert Murdoch, and buy newspapers and radio & TV stations, and make it clear to my employees that a certain political slant is expected of them — am I a “news organization”, or am I “buying votes”?
The line between money and speech is so blurry, and the importance of free speech so vital to society’s health, that I feel that in “Citizen’s United”, the Supreme Court of the United States made the right decision — money is speech, and any attempt to regulate money spent on speech is in dire risk of endangering free expression.
Are Corporations People?
Corporations aren’t exactly like people. Corporations can’t collect social security when they’re 65 years old, and people can’t be broken into pieces in antitrust lawsuits. Many other differences exist.
But if a government tells a corporation they cannot speak, they are telling the stockholders and employees of that corporation they cannot speak, and those are people. So a corporation (or a union) has, through its membership, the right to free speech.
Free speech carries with it responsibilities. You cannot defraud, you cannot slander or libel, you cannot violate copyrights. All these limitations apply equally to people and corporations. As far as free speech goes, corporations and unions should have the same rights as people.