Editorials

Trouble with money in politics may be when you try to keep it out

It's easy to decry money in politics, but since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United versus the FEC we've built some history with treating money as a path to free speech.

So for the first time the Institute for Free Speech created an index to measure how much each state restricts campaign donations and thus restricts political speech. Illinois ranked 29th with a C-minus, mainly for restrictions on individual giving to political parties and political action committees.

Ranking all 50 states allows a look at whether state and federal campaign donation rules help or hurt incumbents, lead to better government and fight corruption. The study generally found states with fewer restrictions on political speech and the ability to get opposing messages out fared better on those fronts.

So what about Illinois specifically?

We are more restrictive than average regarding campaign cash. Most states do not limit giving to a political party, but Illinois does.

Part of the problem with Illinois' political giving is that it gives unlimited donation rights to a party or to a candidate's relative but not to Joe Average, the study found. Illinois is unique in removing contribution limits when an independent group dumps big bucks into a campaign or when you are facing a rich person funding their own campaign.

Not an issue when billionaires clash.

So how are we doing? We are taxed more than any other state while still being nearly bankrupt, have an Illinois House Speaker who holds a national record for being entrenched and 60 percent of the state legislative races were uncontested in 2016.

Limiting the cash that buys you the ability to spread a dissenting message may be part of our problem. Unlimited terms and gerrymandering legislative districts also keep us in a state of misery.

The institute argues that freeing up money helps challengers find someone to believe in their cause and ideas. Incumbents already have access to cash.

Money is speech because politics is no longer standing on a soapbox in the town square and rallying support for your ideas. Ideas and beliefs spread through electrons and digits.

If you are lucky enough to be Citizen Romanik and have unlimited access to a radio station, that is one thing — not that it will keep you from getting trounced if your message fails. If you are Jane Average challenging an incumbent, you need cash to buy the bandwidth that gets out your message.

Ultimately, the more we've regulated campaign donations the more money has become central to campaigns and the less we've understood of a candidate's character and stands. So the next time you hear a group decrying Citizens United or money in politics, take a closer look.

Are they really against money in politics? Or are they against your right to get angry, join with others and gain a political voice for your cause.

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