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Research Desk summarizes: How does the world finance elections?

By Dylan Matthews

KarlES asks:

What about the rest of the world? Or more broadly, how does the rest of the world finance their campaigns?

I obviously can't cover every country's system, but the Library of Congress recently put out a report summarizing the campaign finance laws in Australia, France, Germany, Israel and the United Kingdom. These countries include a variety of different approaches, which I've tried to summarize in the following table. One thing to note is that, because all of these countries have stronger party systems than the United States, and most campaign expenditures are spent by the party itself, I have included the limits on contributions to parties where relevant. The individual limit listed for the U.S., then, is the limit on contributions to a national party, not to a candidate (that limit is $2,400); the corporate figure for the U.S. is for multimember Political Action Committee (PAC) donations to party committees, as most corporations funnel their contributions through PACs.

campaign_policies_graph.png

I added at the bottom the score Transparency International gives each country on its Corruption Perceptions Index, which is the most respected quantitative measure of political corruption. Interestingly, Australia and Germany, the two best scorers, have relatively few restrictions. The two countries both have public financing but do not cap spending or contributions, limit advertising or subsidize political ads directly. France and Israel, the two most corrupt countries featured, have individual contribution limits, ban corporate contributions, have spending ceilings and, in France's case, even ban paid political ads. As an aside, spending ceilings and bans on paid ads would almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, while mandating networks to provide free airtime is questionable.

The causality could go two ways here. One could take from this that having few restrictions but public funding allows citizens and public interest groups to counter corporate spending and leads to cleaner government. This is the argument of people such as Kathleen Sullivan, a noted legal liberal who is also a strong opponent of most campaign spending restrictions. Alternately, it could just be that France and Israel have more corrupt political cultures, and that their stricter systems were adopted in response. This seems to be true in France, where scandals in the late 1980s spurred (PDF) reform of the campaign finance system. It is possible that even more corruption would occur in the absence of these restrictions, or that they could reduce corruption yet further in Germany and Australia, but leaders there have not seen the need.

The one constant is that other countries have more extensive public financing systems than the U.S., closer to what would occur under the Fair Elections Now Act.

-- Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Dylan Matthews  |  July 8, 2010; 3:36 PM ET
 
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Comments

Coming from New Zealand (where we look down our noses at the corrupt culture in Australia - our CPI is 9.4) there is another interpretation of the relation between the CPI and restrictions on political spending.

When there are more restrictions, the restrictions themselves become part of the discourse, thereby encouraging people to think more about the pernicious effect of money on politics. This in turn drives the CPI down - it is based on perceptions, after all.

Posted by: Unwisdom | July 8, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Certainly reducing corruption is an admirable goal. But I think that public financing and caps on contributions could perhaps make elected officials more responsive to 'ordinary' people and less responsive to major corporations. Anyways, it would be interesting to see if anyone has studied this.

Posted by: kisfiu | July 8, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

It would also be interesting to compare the rates of incumbency vs. turnover in each system. Does any structure lend itself to the preservation of incumbency advantages more than others?

Posted by: tomtildrum | July 8, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

The most significant variable is probably income inequality.

e.g. on the CIA GINI co-efficient Austria and Germany have among the lowest levels of inequality in the developed world (e.g. Austria ranking #3, Germany #9).

France clocks in at #35, Israel is near #70.

If the disparities in income are low, that means the differences in political giving are likely to be minimized. Perhaps the take away here is that the tax code is a more important factor in reducing the perception of corruption than limits applied after the fact.

It's also worth noting that Sarkozy's party in France is currently embroiled in a major corruption scandal; in Israel Olmert and Lieberman have also had some major problems in recent years.

Posted by: JPRS | July 8, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse

Dylan Matthews has an opportunity to directly earn Ph. D. if he digs more into - "how India finances it's election". Oh boy, that is one of the most dominant reasons Corruption is such a devastating force in India.

Posted by: umesh409 | July 8, 2010 11:23 PM | Report abuse

You say "mandating networks to provide free airtime is questionable", but you don't explain why. All it would take is for the FCC to make a certain amount of free air time a condition of license renewal for TV stations, since the airwaves belong to us (and should NEVER be auctioned off!).

The problem is political will. While scrambling for donor money takes up a lot of a politician's time, voting for free air time would force them to compete on an equal footing (and possibly blunt their post-pol lobbying career) which they probably prefer to avoid.

Posted by: glenerian | July 9, 2010 7:52 AM | Report abuse

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