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Money in Politics: Good Government Reforms Cost Money

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Photo: Patrick Gensel/Filckr/Creative Commons License

When people ask me about the one government reform I would put into place if I had a magic wand, I often say "real campaign finance reform." I believe there is simply too much money in politics. The current situation gives rise to special access and undue influence by those who can and do spend substantial sums. And at least as worrisome is the appearance of such access and influence. The majority of members of the electorate increasingly feel that politics and elections are games open to the few and the cost of admission is a large donation or independent expenditure.

Why, then, do so many so-called good government reforms lead to more expensive races? Well, to start, let's take my least favorite government reform: term limits. As a result of them many elected officials are not just running for re-election every few years, they are endlessly eyeing and running for (and raising money for) the next post.

But what about something I would consider to be a positive government reform? Well, let's take redistricting. Now in California an independent redistricting commission draws the state and federal legislative lines. Previously legislators drew their own district lines, not surprisingly in ways that best assured their re-election. By contrast, the independent redistricting commission was charged with drawing lines that, among other things, keep communities of interest together. So this seems like a good reform, but one of the consequences is that there will now be much more competitive races in some districts. The phrase "more competitive races" is often code for more expensive races.

Finally, let's consider the new open primary, top two election system. Now any voter can vote for any candidate in the primary election, regardless of party affiliation. In addition, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, will compete in the general election. No longer will the winner of a party primary be the assured winner in the general election in many districts. However, as a result all of the candidates in the primary will need to appeal to all of the members of that district, not just the members of a candidate's party. In addition, in the general election there could be a much more competitive fight than in the past. Again, competitive often means expensive.

Just because a reform will make elections more expensive does not mean it is a bad reform -- far from it. But it does mean we need to consider all of the consequences of reforms when voting at the ballot box.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every week. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School. Read more of her posts here.

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