Research Desk summarizes: How does the world finance elections?
By Dylan Matthews
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.
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.
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