Small-money donations “good for democracy,” Federal Elections Commission Chair says at Willamette Symposium

by University Communications,

Ellen Weintraub, chair of the Federal Elections Commission, said that during the 2012 election cycle, almost half of the $676 million raised by presidential candidates came from donors who contributed $200 or less to the campaigns. “If you’re not going to have a public funding system, having people give small amounts of money is as good as it gets,” she said. “It’s good for democracy.”

Weintraub delivered the Ken & Claudia Peterson address at a symposium on campaign finance and the 2012 election, sponsored by Willamette’s Center for Constitutional Government. Weintraub said when the FEC announced that $7 billion had been raised during the 2012 election cycle, “the phone lines lit up. Everyone wanted me to say it was a very bad thing. But I’m not at all concerned.”

“Yes, it’s a lot of money,” Weintraub said, but she added that $7 billion amounts to .18 percent of the country’s $3.8 trillion budget. She also noted that if every one of the 240 million people of voting age in the U.S. were to donate $100 to a candidate, that would pour $24 billion into the campaign finance system.

“Would anyone say it was corrupting for every person of voting age to spend $100 on a candidate of their choice?” she said. “I don’t think so.”

Weintraub said she was more concerned about whether the money flowing into campaigns is legal and transparent. The nastiest campaign ads, she noted, tend to be financed by people who are difficult to identify. In a recent election in Maryland, Weintraub said, an initiative that would have allowed a new casino drew opposition from a group that turned out to have been financed by a casino based in West Virginia that didn’t want the competition.

“People are always looking for new ways to influence politics, which is important,” Weintraub said. “That means the law is constantly in flux.”

The all-day symposium, held at Willamette University College of Law, featured panels on Super PACs and the 2012 Presidential election; the future of public financing; judicial elections; and disclosure vs. contribution limits. Among the participants were former Oregon Supreme Court chief justice Paul J. De Muniz, Distinguished Jurist-in-Residence at the law school; Professor Paul Diller; Kate Brown, Oregon’s Secretary of State; Oregon Rep. Chris Garrett, D-Lake Oswego; Oregon lobbyist John DiLorenzo BS’77, JD’80; and former FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith.

Norman Williams, Willamette’s Ken & Claudia Peterson Professor of Law and director of the Center for Constitutional Government, organized the symposium in cooperation with the Willamette Law Review. Professors Karen Sandrik, Jeffrey Dobbins and David Friedman were moderators.