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Amitai Etzioni Headshot

Elections: The European Way

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If you are concerned about the tons of money that flow into our elections and the campaigns that drag on and on, but are told there is no way to limit the amount of dough involved -- have a look at the way the Europeans do it.

How the French do it:

Campaigns for the presidency last the two weeks preceding the first ballot and the week between ballots (if necessary). Campaigns for National Assembly (their Congress) open 20 days before the first ballot. Contributions from corporations and nonprofit organizations are prohibited. Contributions of more than €150 (about 200 USD) must be paid by check or online, with the donor's identity disclosed. The total expenditures a campaign can make are capped. For instance, for the 2007 presidential campaign, expenditures were limited to €16,166,000 for the first ballot and €21,594,000 for the two candidates present at the second ballot.

Public funding is available. 50 percent of campaign expenditures are refunded -- but only for monies spent during the short election period! Free airtime is given to all parties participating in elections. Paid political advertising is prohibited. An independent authority audits campaign accounts after the election, and fiscal and criminal penalties are imposed for accounting and disclosure violations. If a candidate's expenditures were greater than the allowed sum, the candidate must give to the Public Treasury the amount by which the campaign expenditures exceeded the established ceiling. Candidates can face a fine of €3,750 and/or imprisonment for up to one year.

How the Brits do it:

The official campaign period runs typically from 5 to 6 weeks. Only "permissible donors" can make contributions above £200 (300 USD) to political parties and above £50 (75 USD) to candidates. Contributions from abroad (aside from registered UK voters overseas) are prohibited. The United Kingdom also imposes ceilings on expenditures permitted in elections. In the 2010 general election, the limit for parliamentary candidates during the formal election campaign period was £7,150 (10,000 USD) plus £0.05 (0.07 USD) per elector in a borough (urban) constituency and £0.07 (0.10 USD) per elector in a county constituency. This means that the candidates need not spend a lot of time raising funds. While there is no public funding for election campaigns, free time for broadcasts is available for parties and candidates participating in the elections. Paid political advertising is prohibited. Parties must submit a report detailing expenditures within 3 months after the election; candidates must do so within 35 days. Candidates who knowingly incur expenses in excess of the amounts outlined above must vacate their seat or office and are liable to a £5,000 fine.

Limits on dough and free speech:

None of this could work in the United States because in this country, commitment to free speech is much stronger than in Europe, and the Supreme Court has declared that money is speech. That is, one way people express their political views is by making donations and, hence, limiting the amount of cash one can give to candidates running for office -- the court holds -- ipso facto limits speech. Indeed, the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional various limits on campaign contributions imposed by Congress and the states, most damagingly in its Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited spending by corporations and unions on elections. One can dream of a day when the Supreme Court will see the corrupting effects of its ruling and reverse itself, but this is rather unlikely to happen, given the composition of the Court and its reluctance to reverse itself.

Recently there have been various attempts to limit the flood of money into politics. Most have been ineffective. For instance, the Montana Supreme Court upheld a century-old state law banning corporate spending in Montana political campaigns, but this attempt to limit campaign spending was quickly blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court in February. The Fair Elections Now Act has been reintroduced into Congress and would provide public funding that would serve to curb candidates' reliance on lobbyists, corporations and other big contributors. The bill would also limit donors' contributions to PACs to $100 per year. However, the bill lacks bipartisan support. An effective move would be for both parties to agree that primaries will not take place until six months before the elections. Meanwhile, let's be honest about it: on this score, the Europeans put us to shame.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University and the author of Hot Spots: Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World (Transaction 2012). For more discussion, see icps.gwu.edu.

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