Why Do Elections Cost So Much?

Why Do Elections Cost So Much?

Adrienne BoettingerWednesday,19 August 2015

I talk a lot about how I will eventually become Queen of Everything (QoE). For the wildly uninformed, that is not an actual job. I cannot pass a test to be declared QoE, nor could I win an election to gain the title. I imagine I will simply awaken one day to find everyone has realized how much better the world would be if I was in charge and I just naturally become QoE — or maybe a benevolent force for good (who in my mind looks like Ruth Bader Ginsberg but with wings) will crown me QoE and my reign will begin.

I’m thankful there’s not an election for that position – it would probably cost eleventy gazillion dollars. ‘Cuz elections are big bizness here in the Land of the Free. The 2012 national elections (Presidential and Congressional races combined) cost over $6.2 billion. That is an insane number. Let’s look at it in its full glory to truly understand the sum: $6,285,557,223.00. It takes longer for me to say that number than it does to eat a whole brownie. Which I will do right now.

Ok, I’m back. Have you actually grasped the enormity of that number? Oh and keep in mind – that’s just the national elections; that doesn’t include all the state, county, and local elections that people spend way too much cash on.  The Pennsylvania gubernatorial elections alone cost over $54 million in 2014. And that’s a state with a fair amount of Amish people, which means they’re not watching cable TV or on the Interwebz to see all the ads the campaign dollars are buying.

If you want to know where most of the money goes in a campaign, that’s where — campaign ads. You know — those things you try desperately to avoid and complain unceasingly about? The ones that have you changing the channel or cursing the robocalls – that’s where. In a stunning piece of investigatory journalism, The Economist noted that America is a big, rich country. Ok, I’m being facetious but they have a point: it costs a lot of money to annoy the 314 million people in the country into voting for your guy (or more importantly not voting for the other guy).

Now some will say that we spend about $7 billion on potato chips each year and shouldn’t we spend as much on electing our leaders? To that I say, you are ridiculous. Yes, we spend more on our pets, Halloween, snacks and a ton of other things but that’s spread across the whole country. It’s really a very small amount of people — the elite – who are funding elections. That results in that same small group having way more say than the rest of us. A 2014 study by Princeton University found average citizens’ preference for a policy change had nearly zero impact on the probability that change would be enacted by those citizens’ elected officials. But if those citizens were the economic elites (in the 90th income percentile), their preferences had a huge impact on the probability change would be enacted.

Money plays an enormous role in who gets elected. Based on the results of the 2014 midterm elections, 94 percent of the biggest spenders won their races for the House of Representatives and 82 percent of the biggest spenders won their races for the Senate. Whoever can spend the most money generally wins. Does that seem right to anyone who hasn’t drunk a whole bunch of paint thinner?

Does it have to be this way? Of course not. Other democratic countries manage to hold elections for less than what it would take to buy 60 Boeing 737 airplanes. In France, campaign spending is capped at $30 million. Norwegian elections are publicly funded and political ads are banned from TV and radio. We’ve previously placed limitations on campaign donation and spending and we can do it again. Or we can keep letting the same small group of people decide who should wield the power and get the favors.


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Hat Tips:

Center for Responsive Politics, The Morning Call, Princeton University, PBS, The Economist, CNN, Sunlight Foundation, Represent.Us, Image Credit: Flickr

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