Hall: PAC-ing the election

Loretta Hall
New Mexico News Services
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There’s little comfort in knowing that it’s not new. Money has been part of American politics from the beginning. How it’s used just changes over time.

When George Washington was running for the colonial Virginia Legislature in 1758, he reportedly spent his entire campaign budget on liquor served to voters. His win validated the effectiveness of the strategy, which his opponent had used to beat him in the previous election.

Another time-honored approach is simply paying someone to vote a particular way. That isn’t always reliable, though. Charles Russell recently told a Washington Post reporter that he accepted a financial offer to vote for a certain person in a 2010 Jackson, Kentucky, primary election. When he got in the voting booth, he realized that candidate wasn’t running in his district. Nonetheless, he came out and said he had cast the desired vote. He walked away $45 richer.

Neither of those strategies is legal today; nor is voting in the name of a deceased person, which sometimes happens. But one modern version of buying elections is legal, and it’s used at both the national and state levels. It involves shuffling money around through a series of political action committees, or PACs.

Sandra Fish, a data journalist with the online news site New Mexico In Depth, is investigating how this practice plays out right here in New Mexico. She found that individual state legislators control 30 PACs. These are separate from the legislators’ re-election campaign funds, so after a supporter (individual or organization) has donated the maximum amount legally allowed to a campaign fund, that supporter can contribute even more to the PAC controlled by that incumbent. Often, incumbents in safe seats will use their PACs’ funds to support the campaigns of candidates in other districts.

PACs donate to other PACs, which then donate to still other PACs or give directly to specific campaigns or spend their money for advertising that supports a candidate. Ultimately, it becomes difficult or impossible to figure out where the money came from. Is it from New Mexico donors or outside influencers? What special interest groups are spending big bucks to help one candidate or undermine another?

We’re not talking small change here. Fish reported on Sept. 13 that “PACs spent nearly $1.8 million during the last two months.”

There’s an even more troublesome wrinkle to all this. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions can legally spend unlimited amounts of money related to a campaign as long as they act independently from the candidate’s official campaign. When that decision was announced, I thought it was a good one. Why shouldn’t companies be able to help elect a candidate they favored?

I found out the devil is in the details of something called a “super PAC.”

Organizations donate money to a super PAC, which buys advertisements and sends out mailers, frequently supporting a favored candidate by attacking an opponent. This is done without the knowledge or consent of the candidate. These smear ads often run right before an election, leaving little or no time for rebuttal, and the candidate the super PAC supports has no control over the slurs and innuendos.

Elections shouldn't be manipulated.

Money plays too big a role in politics, especially when large donors can hide behind super PACs and play dirty. Personal attacks (which are often untrue or exaggerated) should not replace civil debates about candidates’ ideas and proposals. Anonymous, third-party insinuations and distortions of positions should not be allowed. Protections against libel and slander should not be waived in political campaigns.

Candidates should control their own campaigns and act like respectable adults. Voters should thoughtfully read and listen to details of candidates’ proposals, not just swallow sound bites and billboard slogans. Elections are important, and all of us should take our responsibilities seriously.

Freelance writer Loretta Hall was named Communicator of Achievement by the National Federation of Press Women.