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Fast Cash and Campaign Gimmicks: A Lesson from Chicago

As Wyoming and other states consider expanding the reach of campaign finance laws to capture “dark money,” some consideration of what’s happening in Chicago is helpful.  Aggressive campaign finance regulations, touted as combatting corruption, allow for easy manipulation of the law. 

We learned last week that Rahm Emanuel pulled in $400,000 in campaign contributions to his mayoral campaign  due to an obscure part of Illinois campaign finance law.  Under Illinois law, when wealthy candidates self-finance their campaigns with $100,000 or more in local races, contribution limits are eliminated for every opponent. 

In Chicago, frequent—and frequently unsuccessful—candidate William Kelly filed papers to run for mayor of Chicago.  Then he decided to not really run.  Then a check showed up for $200,000 to Emanuel’s campaign from the Maryland Pipefitters PAC.  Then another one showed up for $100,00 from a Texas hedge fund manager.  And on and on it goes.

No one knows whether Emanuel and Kelly are gaming the system, but one thing is clear:  complicated campaign finance laws are easily manipulated and lead to unintended consequences.  In the Chicago mayoral race, candidates are only allowed to fundraise as much as they’d like without limits when a wealthy candidate runs.  That means that innovative, unheard of voices that might do well in an ordinary election can’t because of oppressive contribution caps.  It also means that wealthy candidates might be less likely to run knowing that it is only their presence that triggers the removal of these caps. 

Campaign finance law, however well intentioned, just invites manipulation.  It also takes a quintessentially American activity—running for office or sharing your political views in public—and makes it a professional endeavor.  Suddenly, accountants, lawyers, and advisors must guide your every step.  And it usually favors some groups at the expense of others. 

Deregulated election law embraces everyone’s right to speak and associate as they see fit.  It imposes no artificial upper limits on how supportive you can be of a candidate, how you choose to associate with other Americans, or how loudly you speak.  Interestingly, it invites a truly open and honest competition of ideas without burying a free people in campaign finance red tape.  The First Amendment also inspires it, and that’s campaign finance we can believe in.

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