A look at the best way to buy your vote
Elections are a topical subject, perhaps more than ever in the wake of Donald Trump’s successful bid for the White House. He and Hillary Clinton each spent close to $1 billion.
Whether the race is for the US presidency, Australia’s parliament, the UN secretary-generalship or the right to host the FIFA World Cup, elections cost money, and this heightens voter cynicism.
Checkbook Elections?, then, is topical because it sets itself the objective of combining qualitative and quantitative modes of inquiry to understand which campaign finance reforms work and why. The book is a collection of papers by political scientists and — apart from a sometimes slow pace and flowery language — is an interesting treatment of its subject.
The book is edited by American academic Pippa Norris and Sydney academic Andrea Abel van Es. Its most valuable part is nine chapters that provide country case studies describing campaign finance legislation and electorates’ experience. This is bookended by some interesting discussion of theory and a statistical analysis concluding that regulation works.
Along the way, contributors ask complex questions. However, given imprecision in con- cepts such as finance, integrity, governance and regulation, the book is equivocal in its outlook on campaign finance regulation. Not surprisingly, it admits to difficulties in establishing the results and impact of reforms.
It surprised me that intuitively obvious contentions contribute to the lack of a conclusive answer, especially the obvious point that finance has the potential to corrupt and so its regulation should improve electoral integrity.
Chapter 11 is headed Why Regulate Political Finance? and justifies overriding political parties’ self-regulation on the grounds that they have a monopoly on candidates, lack transparency and do not share information, which threatens potentially high costs to the community from weakness in electoral integrity.
Unfortunately, the next chapter, Does Regulation Work, finds the optimum response is elusive. Specifically, it reaches the unremarkable conclusion that political science experts expect that heavy regulation leads to positive campaign finance practices. The evidence, though, is not as kind.
An obvious example is that Russia has tough campaign finance regulation and Sweden almost none, but this is not mirrored by domestic or international views of the electoral integrity of the two nations. In fact, campaign finance reforms rarely improve voter perceptions of electoral integrity (as opposed to that of experts). Regulation works only when its letter is enforced and its spirit has broad support.
The book is an interesting analysis of pathways to contemporary regulation of political finance. It shows, though, that campaign funding is no easier to regulate than other systems lubricated by money: banking and investment, for instance, similarly suffer chronic debilitating scandals. The approach in each industry is selfregulation within broad bounds, and in elections this spreads across funding disclosure, and limits to contributions and expenditures. Unfortunately this approach rarely succeeds and elections are corrupted in many countries.
More broadly, the book identifies electoral dishonesty as part of the insidious plague of social and economic corruption that spares no country. It assumes, though, that electoral corruption can be contained by regulation. This does not sit easily with moves by Indonesia and the US to all but deregulate their political marketplaces. Although these two quite different countries are among the largest democracies and thus could serve as pointers to possibly broader moves towards laissez-faire regulation, the book dismisses them as “mavericks”.
If money brings scandal to even the oldest democracies such as Italy, Japan, the US and Britain, is there a better approach? The case study for Sweden provides an interesting alternative for Australian voters (and those in many common law countries) because regulation is minimal while the state provides about twothirds of political parties’ campaign funding without any strings. For a country where regulation is generally intrusive, a light touch with elections is intriguing, especially as Sweden has been largely free of campaign scandals.
Sweden also hints that benefit could come from a ban on media spending on elections (the media outlet would be prosecuted for any breach, stopping workarounds), and limit media appearances to vanilla presentations by candidates. No rock stars, videos or saturation coverage. Eliminating the highest category of expenditure would eviscerate the power of donors. Given that the book dances around a better way of financing and running elections, perhaps this should be the editors’ next project.
is a finance academic at the University of Melbourne. His next book is Applied Investment Theory: How Equity Markets and Investors Behave, and Why.