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The Monitor's View

Supreme Court, campaign finance, and civic literacy

As the Supreme Court weighs the latest challenge to a campaign finance law, reformers must also challenge the view that voters are 'civic slackers.'

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / October 5, 2013

Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon follows Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska after an April 23 news conference on Capitol Hill in which they announced a bill on campaign finance reform.

AP

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On Tuesday, the Supreme Court hears arguments in a case challenging a limit on the number of contributions that individuals can give to federal candidates and political parties. If the court rules as it did in a similar case in 2010, another decades-old campaign-finance reform will be sent to the legal ash heap. And more cash will flow into the campaign war chests of politicians.

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The big worry in such rulings is that more elected leaders will do the bidding of those who donate the most campaign money. Government will be further skewed toward the interests of those with the most dollars, such as unions, corporations, and wealthy individuals of both the left and right.

While such official corruption may erode trust in democracy, advocates of campaign-finance reform should start to ask a new question if the high court again affirms a right to free expression in campaign financing, as it did in the 2010 Citizens United ruling.

The question is this: Are voters really so ignorant that candidates will simply keep amassing ever-more money to pay for political ads that are slick, negative, or emotionally manipulative?

The “father” of the Constitution, James Madison, warned that “a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Scholars and pollsters have long probed voters on their ability to participate in the free exchange of ideas required for a deliberative democracy. They often come away disappointed.

Yet a person’s level of political knowledge generally increases with more education, income, and media savvy, such as reading the news and using the Internet. Over the past century, those key indicators have improved.

Still, political strategists and campaign-finance reformers often simply assume a high level of voter ignorance. It is a regular source of jokes on late-night comedy TV, such as Jay Leno's “Jaywalking” segment on "The Tonight Show."

When candidates see voters as either ill informed or misinformed – or even stupid – their ads often reflect that. But voters aren’t clueless. They do not want to be targets of the latest tools in psychology and mass marketing. When citizens serve on juries, the government respects them for their wisdom and experience, even in sentencing defendants for execution. When citizens run afoul of a law, they are expected to have known the law (“ignorance is no defense”).

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