Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dependents as Donors and Dependent Candidates

Our friends at the Wisconsin Democracy Project recently unveiled findings that students had contributed $86K to candidates in Wisconsin since 2002. Many of those gave only after their parents had maxed out their legal contributions to the same candidates, under Wisconsin's system of contribution limits. It appears that some of these students may be funneling donations from their parents to get around the limits, which is illegal.

Yesterday's Washington Post had a story on the same thing, in federal elections. They found a two-year-old Chicago child who gave the maximum $2,300 donation to a candidate, at the same time that her older brother and sister, ages 9 and 13, also gave $2,300 each to the same candidate, along with two of their 13-year-old cousins. The two-year-old's parents had already maxed out their giving. The WaPo story notes that these donations "almost certainly run afoul of campaign finance regulations."

We rarely see donations from children in Illinois, in part because we have no limits. If someone really wants to give large amounts of cash to a candidate, there's no legal impediment to doing so, and no reason to break the law by parceling the money out among a bunch of straw donors.

But the problem that the Post and WDC found isn't so much that some parents use their kids to sneak around the limits, it's that candidates can become too reliant for money from a tiny number of donors. And we have that problem in Illinois in spades.

Here in Illinois, most candidates for statewide office get most of their money from donors who pony up $10,000 or more, and those donors account for a teeny tiny fraction of all Illinoisans -- less than one-tenth of one -percent.

Last night at the opening game of the World Series, Boston crushed the Rockies. Fenway's a small park, with a seating capacity of only about 36,000. And yet, it's roughly analogous to how campaign finance works. There are 13 million people in Illinois, and fewer than 600 account for most of the money raised. There are more players on a baseball field, relative to the number of fans in the stands, than there are large donors and residents in the state. At Fenway, it's as if only two fielders matter, out of all the people at the game. And those large donors exercise a vastly disproportionate influence on the political agenda elected officials follow. Fans are there to watch baseball games, but voters expect more from their government.

Limits may be imperfect, but they are a tool to address the problem of big donors' disproportionate influence on public policy. The difference between Illinois and other states isn't so much that candidates become dependent on a small group of donors -- it's that other states have tools to address the problem, while Illinois does not.

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