Campaign Finance, Income Disparity, and the Right to Equal Political Participation in Illinois

Our current election system does not allow all citizens to meaningfully participate in the democratic system.  Socio-economic classes are not equally represented in the electoral process and voter participation has a class bias.  Disparities in voter turn out vary across income-levels.  There was a twenty percent difference in voter turn out in the 2008 presidential elections among voters that made more than $75,000 a year and voters that made less than $30,000 a year. 

Weak finance laws discourages minority and low-income voters from participating in the political process and marginalizes their interests if they do. The existing campaign finance system in Illinois is perhaps the worst in the Midwest.

Campaign Finance Law’s Impact on Political Participation

Campaign finance laws can be pivotal in determining if only a small pool of the wealthy class are able to run for political office.  Generally, such laws dissuade low- income citizens from voting.  Unregulated campaign finance laws have resulted in such high campaign costs, that often only the extremely wealthy are able to contemplate running for office.  If a person with an average income does consider candidacy, it is likely that they will be compelled to rely on large donations from wealthy individuals and Political Action Committees (PACs) fueled by rich donors.  This type of reliance can mean that only wealthy candidates would be able to insulate themselves from the influence from donors.

Not only does unregulated campaign finance law make wealth the driving factor in elections, it may also dissuade average voters from participating in the democratic process.  Campaign spending and turnout have been moving roughly in opposite directions over the last fifteen years.  That fact suggests that as money becomes a more persuasive factor in electoral success, Americans are further discouraged from voting. 

Campaign Finance in Illinois

Illinois is notorious for having one of the weakest campaign finance laws in the country. While it did take steps to regulate campaign finance in 2009, those efforts were quickly undone with new laws passed earlier this year.  With weak contribution limits and no public financing available, Illinois campaign finance law foster an environment where politics and politicians are subject to the influence of special interests and the wealthy.

Contribution limits restrain the ability of a few wealthy donors to fund an entire campaign, and thus weakens the influence of those donors. Up until 2009, there were no limits on campaign contributions.  Although a ground breaking campaign finance bill was passed in 2009 that limited contributions from individuals, PACs, or political and labor parties for the very first time; that bill was quickly undermined by Public Act 97-766 which took effect in July 6, 2012.  Public Act 97-66 allows contribution limits to be removed in a local or legislature race once an outside group spends $100,000 on behalf of a candidate, creating a dangerous loophole.  The trigger for state-wide races is $250,000.  Under the new law, if a candidate was running for local government or legislature wanted to remove contribution limits, he need only have a PAC, a corporation, or a friend donate $100,000 to his campaign. The law effectively makes contribution limitations irrelevant and ushers Illinois electoral law back to its no-holds-barred era.

Public Financing is an important option.  Although public financing may not be able to match the funds raised through private donors, it does provide candidates with alternative funding options and may allow them to campaign without relying on the help of a few.  It also might encourage candidates to run who may not otherwise consider doing so.  Illinois has no sort of public financing system; Illinois is amongst the twenty-five other states, including all other Midwestern states, that do offer programs to provide public funds for use in election campaigns.  The lack of a public financing system bars any candidate who does not have the resources to fund an election nor wants to depend on wealthy interest in order to campaign. 

Income disparity in voter turn out and democratic participation is a problem that can be addressed with legislative changes.  As it stands today, electoral law not only makes it difficult for low-income voters to participate in casting a ballot, it also discourages them from fuller political participation by running for office.  The right to vote and fair representation should not be contingent on how much you make.