Since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, individual donors and corporations have been allowed to spend limitlessly towards certain political action committees, Super PACs, in order to support their preferred candidates. The decision has sparked widespread controversy, with critics claiming that money that is funneled into Super PACs and used to dominate election airtime has crowded out the voices of less wealthy citizens who have to compete with influential donors for a candidate’s loyalty.
But less attention has been paid to how Super PACs can often frustrate and confound the very efforts of the candidates they hope to help.
One recent congressional race, in particular, demonstrates this point very well. The race between incumbent Mike Honda (a labor-backed Democrat) and challenger Ro Khanna (a tech-backed Democrat) to represent booming San Jose and Silicon Valley demonstrates that, in addition to silencing citizens’ voices, Super PACs distort the planning and execution of political campaigns by candidates as well.
The congressional race between Khanna and Honda provides a unique context for understanding the nature of Super PACs and money in politics. While both candidates are socially progressive in their stances, Khanna associates himself with technology and innovation in Silicon Valley and Honda with labor and the working class. Khanna, who has consistently condemned the existence of Super PACs and money in politics, has also out-spent his opponent 3 times over, mainly through donations from major technology firms in Silicon Valley who support his pro-business and technology stances. Meanwhile, Honda won the primary election by a sizable margin due to his incumbency and strong ties with labor organizations, Congressional Democrats and the White House. Both candidates have been supported by Super PACs: Khanna by California for Innovation and Honda by Working For Us.
However, the actions of super PACs in this heated election have complicated the campaigns of both Khanna and Honda by confusing their campaign messages with their corresponding Super PAC’s intentions. For example, the Working For Us Super PAC launched an ad campaign against Khanna accusing him of “sending our jobs overseas.” Rather than helping, the ad campaign backfired, leading Khanna supporters to criticize the ads as “the crudest form of racially coded language” against the Indian-American Khanna. On the other side of the election, the creation of the California for Innovation Super PAC to directly support Khanna has put the candidate in an awkward position given his strong anti-Super PAC stance early in his campaign.
Why are these Super PACs hurting rather than helping the candidates they aim to support? The problem is that, according to the 2010 Citizens United decision, Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate their activities with the candidates they support. As a result, Super PACs often portray a different and even contradictory image of a candidate than that presented by the official campaign platform. For example, Khanna could not stop a Super PAC being created for him, even though he would be perceived as a more consistent and reliable candidate if he did not have one.
Moreover, compared with the pre-2010 “regular” PACs which were limited to accepting donations of up to $2500 only from individual donors rather than corporations, Super PACs can accept unlimited corporate, union, and individual donations and, as a result, have the capability to influence elections in drastic ways. With an exponential increase in monetary resources, Super PACs can buy more TV time, hire more staff, and handle larger marketing efforts. That means a significant number of votes are at stake when Super PACs execute advertising campaigns that are not in line with the candidate’s values, such as the race-tinged ads attacking Khanna, which were not approved by Honda.
The 2010 Citizens United decision has created a double-bind in political elections that must be addressed. Either a candidate coordinates with a Super PAC and is in violation of campaign finance law or there is no coordination between the political platform and the financial support system for a candidate, resulting in conflicting messages. In either situation, Super PACs compromise the efficacy of our democratic elections. If we are to preserve both our democratic institutions and the existence of Super PACs, steps must be taken to enable coordination between Super PACs and candidates in a way that does not make candidates beholden to wealthy donors. One such option is to advocate reform via a constitutional amendment to both reintroduce campaign contribution limits and exclude corporate and union election donations, so that fair coordination between candidates and PACs may be possible. Or, Super PACs and special interests can be eliminated entirely through the Fair Elections Now Act, which would mandate publicly-financed elections.
While there are different ways to resolve the problem that Super PACs present, the only way to create the political will for reform is to support candidates who are committed to changing campaign finance. As Stanford students in the heart of Silicon Valley, we are in a unique position to encourage reform. Politically, Silicon Valley is holding one of the most heated and widely-publicized elections in the nation, one where campaign finance is a core issue. Whether you vote for Khanna or Honda, we need to hold our representatives accountable to the promises they make about limiting political spending in elections.
But more than politics, Silicon Valley can leverage technology to improve elections. For example, the Mayday Super PAC, supported by Silicon Valley giants like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, utilizes crowdfunding to support pro-campaign finance reform candidates as a “Super PAC to end all Super PACs.” Furthermore, tech start-ups are creating applications that connect voters to Congressional candidates more efficiently and reliably to counterbalance the marketing campaigns of Super PACs and allow for political accountability to the people.
Whether through political activism or technological engagement, Stanford’s position in Silicon Valley has created opportunities to push the envelope on campaign finance reform. It is up to us to make sure meaningful change ensues.
Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.