Are Super PACs Good for Democracy?

Bradley Smith,

Release Date
October 4, 2012


Democracy and Voting

What exactly is a Super PAC? Professor Bradley Smith, the former Commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, brings some clarity to these controversial groups by taking a close look at Super PACs: what they do and how they impact elections. In the video, Professor Smith asserts that many of the alleged harms caused by Super PACs are based on misconceptions. According to Smith: “far from being the death knell for democracy, Super PACs have been a positive development.” Do you agree? Are Super PACs really good for democracy? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

These days when you talk about politics, it seems like all you hear about is Super PACs. And if you’re like most people, most of what you hear is pretty negative. Well I’m here to suggest something else. I’m here to suggest that Super PACs are good for democracy. Contrary to what you might be hearing, Super PACs in fact are creating more competition in our democracy, they’re creating a more open system, and they’re making more voices heard. Now they have a lot of regulatory requirements, a lot of things they need to report to the federal government, a lot of forms they have to file. But conceptually, it’s easy. A Super PAC – you, me, whoever else we want to get involved – spending our money jointly to try to influence a political race. The only difference between a Super PAC and a regular, old-fashioned Political Action Committee is that a Super PAC can take unlimited funds from any source (including corporations and unions) because it doesn’t give money directly to candidates. It only spends money on its own. Regular old PACs are limited in how much money they can take from any one individual and they can’t take corporate money or union money at all, but they can give money directly to candidate campaigns. Super PACs are the result of a pair of 2010 U.S. court decisions. In Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court held that corporations and unions had a right to spend their money to advocate the election or defeat of candidates. Not to give money to those candidates or their campaigns, but to spend money on their own to say whether those people should be elected or defeated in their runs for office. The other case is one called versus Federal Election Commission, a case from the United States Court of Appeals which held that individuals or corporations or unions had a right to pool their resources to do that same type of independent spending – that is, spending unrelated to the candidate. They don’t talk to the candidate’s campaigns and they don’t plan their spending in conjunction with the candidate. Now, why are Super PACs such a big deal? You know, the funny thing is, even prior to these two decisions, Super PACs were allowed in a majority of the United States in races for governor, secretary of state, state legislature, state Supreme Court. Twenty-six states allowed Super PACs, allowed unlimited corporate spending, and how did those states do? Well, according to the Pew Charitable Trust and governing magazine (a magazine which studies governments in the states), the six best-governed states in America were all states that allowed unlimited corporate and union expenditures even before Citizens United. There’s really not much reason to think that Super PACs were detrimental to democracy in any of the states where they existed prior to Citizens United and So why are people getting so worked up? Well there’s a lot of bad information going around about Super PACs and we’re going to try to set the record straight on at least a few points. Let’s address some of those problems one at a time. Myth #1: Super PACs enable corporations to control and dominate elections. What we’ve seen in the two election cycles so far – that is, 2010, the first election with Super PACs, and 2012, to date – is that corporate spending is a very small part of the Super PAC picture. Only about 18% comes from corporations, 55% comes from individuals, and the other 26% comes from unions and non-profit organizations. Myth #2: Super PACs raise secret, untraceable money. Well that’s not really true. In fact, Super PACs are required to report all of their donors to the Federal Election Commission, where it’s made available on the Federal Election Commission website to any American who wants to look it up. And this data has to be reported quarterly, monthly, or close to elections, often within 48 hours. The complaint of some who favor more regulation is the fact that Super PACs get some of their donations from 501(c)(4) non-profit organizations and those non-profits don’t have to disclose their donors. But these non-profit organizations make up only 5.6% of the money that’s going to Super PACs. And furthermore, if somebody gives money to the non-profit specifically to run political ads, then that donor will be reported to the Federal Election Commission. The third myth we often hear is the Super PACs are ruining political discourse with negative attack ads. If you don’t like negative ads, Super PACs are not to blame. Negative ads have been a part of American politics for as long as we’ve had elections. But empirical data from the Wesleyan Media Project shows that negative ads are actually more common from candidates and political parties than they are from Super PACs. Furthermore, negative ads aren’t necessarily bad. Research has shown that negative ads are more likely to deal with substantive issues than are positive ads, which tend to be puff character pieces about the politician and don’t really give voters much information. Myth #4: Super PACs benefit incumbents and the politically powerful. Super PACs in fact provide a check on incumbents. In 2010, 54 incumbents lost their races for Congress. In those races, Super PACs and other independent spenders spent, on average, just a tiny bit over $900,000. But in races that incumbents won, Super PACs only spent about $75,000 on average. In fact, what you see is that incumbents have a lot more money than challengers do and Super PACs help to level that playing field and make challengers competitive. Far from being the death knell for democracy, Super PACs have been a positive development. They’ve created more competition and they’ve made it harder for incumbents to stay in office just because they’re incumbents. Super PACs have been and will continue to be a thorn in the side of entrenched political interests.