The effects of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision which opened the door for political groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, are well documented at the federal level. However, the negative consequences on electoral transparency, accountability, and fairness do not stop at the national level. Independent political groups are also now allowed to spend freely in local elections, including this year's hotly contested Boston mayoral race.
The precedent has already been set. In the April 2012 elections for Oklahoma City Council a Super PAC spent $400,000 to help four candidates. Three of the four candidates won their elections. Earlier this year outside political groups spent more than $10 million to influence the Los Angeles mayoral election. Similar levels of spending abound in a host of city elections in New York City this year (here and here).
Boston city elections are surely not immune from these groups spending unlimited, often undisclosed, funds to influence electoral outcomes and curry favor with the victors. On Tuesday, nonprofit education advocacy group Stand for Children pledged to spend $500,000 to $750,000 to elect mayoral candidate John Connolly. For now Stand for Children has rescinded its offer in response to pressure from Connolly, but there is nothing stopping other independent political groups from throwing their own funds into the race. In fact, some already have (see Working America and Democrats for Education Reform).
As Common Cause Massachusetts's report Plea for a Pledge documented earlier this year, elections with high levels of outside spending decrease disclosure of political donors, increase wealthy donor influence on the electoral process, and increase the amount of negative advertising. This may be good for Super PAC donors, but it's bad for ordinary voters.
While legislative fixes are out of the question (constitutional amendment needed) for limiting the amount of outside spending (note: not true for increasing disclosure), candidate brokered agreements to discourage such spending have proven effective. The Plea for a Pledge report notes that such an agreement kept outside spending in last year's Warren-Brown Senate race at a mere 9% of total spending, compared to 57% on average for similarly priced Senate elections that year.
The result of such a large decrease in outside money meant that there was five times less undisclosed money in the Massachusetts Senate race as compared to the other Senate races investigated in the report. And whereas the top 15 Super PAC donors, giving an average of $7.6 million each, in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Ohio matched the $114 million raised from 175,000 individual donors by all of the candidates in those states combined, small candidate donations (less than $200) outmatched outside groups by 3 to 1 ($23.5 vs. $8 million) in Massachusetts. Moreover, advertisements in those races were more than twice as likely to be negative as in Massachusetts.
It is clear: under current rules less outside money means more transparent and accountable elections. Candidates in the Boston mayoral, city council, and any other current or future election for that matter (Hint: race to fill Ed Markey's congressional seat) should share as their common goal an electoral process that achieves these ends. A candidate pledge, when thoughtfully crafted and even-handedly applied, is an immediate step in that direction. The voters of Massachusetts deserve nothing less.
Office: Common Cause Massachusetts