Elections or Auctions

Exploring the campaign money trail


Imagine you're standing before a judge, arguing that the stream near your home needs protection from a proposed shopping center. The developer steps up to make his argument, but first hands the judge an envelope with $500 inside.

    What do you call that? A bribe.

    Now imagine you're telling your legislator about the need to protect watersheds. The lobbyist for Sundown Lumber has just left the lawmaker's office, leaving behind an envelope with a $500 check inside.

    The legislator says it's a "campaign contribution." What do you call it?

    The line between a political donation and a bribe is getting harder to distinguish these days. In the last General Assembly, lobbyists for marina owners, the National Rifle Association and toxic polluters, among others, wrote detailed bills to help their clients and then got them pushed by powerful legislators who had received campaign money from the same special interests.

    Our democracy is based on the principle of one person, one vote. We're all equals at the ballot box.

    But our system of financing campaigns gives wealthy donors an unfair advantage, since they supply most of the cash for today's high-priced races.

    In inflation-adjusted dollars, a typical state legislator must raise five times the amount of money it took to win in 1976.

    In 1990, Gov. Carroll Campbell spent $1.9 million to win his second term against Theo Mitchell. By contrast, Mitchell spent $400,000.

    With no incumbent in the 1994 gubernatorial election, David Beasley spent $3.5 million to beat Nick Theodore, who spent $4.4 million.

    In return for helping needy candidates, wealthy donors get special access to propose (or write) public policies that make them richer and able to give more donations. It is a vicious cycle with ordinary voters left out.

    Sensing the payoffs, people become more cynical, blame politicians — or worse, blame "government" — and ignore their leverage and duty as voters.

    Voter turnout in South Carolina ranked 49th for the 50 states in 1994. Fewer than one-half of eligible voters in South Carolina participated in the 1994 elections, and only 17 percent supported the "Republican Revolution" that took control of the House and Senate. Staying away from the polls just makes life easier for the power brokers and the wealthy.

    What can be done?

    First, we must recognize that citizen activism does make a difference, and can even defeat big money. The recent victory over corporate hog farms attests to the power of outraged and organized people.

    Second, we must hold wealthy contributors accountable for reducing democracy to a marketplace where money determines winners and losers. Let's not only make our elected representatives who are not looking after the public interest uncomfortable for their stands; let's also embarrass lobbies and industries when they abuse our democracy.

    Third, we must promote reforms that pull voters in and push money out.

    The effort to reduce and redirect the flow of money in politics is catching on at the grassroots across the country.

    As part of that movement, the South Carolina Progressive Network this month is cosponsoring a Money and Politics seminar in Columbia on Sept. 28 in partnership with Democracy South, a regional project, and other South Carolina organizations interested in planning a long-term strategy for changing the role that money plays in elections.

    Among the goals:

  • full disclosure of political money, including donors' economic interest;
  • tough enforcement of existing laws;
  • easier access to the ballot for independent candidates and parties;
  • lower campaign spending and contribution limits; and
  • a method to replace private donations with public money so we fully "own" our government.

    Bob Hall is a founder of the Institute for Southern Studies and works on money and politics projects in the South.


The line between a political donation and a bribe is getting harder to distinguish these days.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 9/14/96