Winner: Isaiah Usher
Home School, Shoreham, VT

Isaiah Usher

Should government be allowed to place limits on how much money candidates and their supporters spend on their campaigns?

A Precedent for Progress:
The Past, Present, and Future of Money in Democracy
By Isaiah Usher

           On the 26th of June, 1997, Vermont instituted the strictest campaign finance law in the United States. The law, Act 64, instituted many changes in Vermont's election process. In particular, it mandated spending limits for candidates and their supporters. On the 28th of August, 1997, the Vermont Right to Life Committee challenged the constitutionality of parts of the law, and brought the case before Vermont Federal Court. The Court ruled that parts of Act 64 were in fact unconstitutional, especially the spending caps, but upheld the law as a whole. The State of Vermont appealed the decision and took the case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where many of the lower Court's decisions were overturned, but the Federal Court's ruling on the unconstitutionality of spending limits remained. Both Courts decided that Government cannot limit the amount that candidates and their supporters can spend. But is this really the best decision? Should Government in fact be allowed to limit such spending?

            If we look to the earliest democracies, in Greece and Rome, we see that the ancients viewed politics much more practically than we do today in the United States. The right to vote was based on property ownership. To vote in ancient Greece, for example, a man (no women or slaves were allowed) had to be well-off enough to buy his own armor. This may seem unfair to us now, but the system was based on the premise that the individuals who defended the State from enemies—at their own cost—should have the most say in the political decision-making process. These citizen-soldiers bore the brunt of responsibility for the State, so they, according to this logic, deserved the greatest share of political power.

The fact is, throughout history, money has always played a large role in the democratic process. In ancient Rome, to cite another example, political campaigns were self-funded, so only the rich could run effectively for office. Today, raising money is one of the most important parts of a campaign. Party leaders and the media often look at the amount of money that a candidate raises in judging whether s/he is a real contender for a political office, rather than looking primarily at a candidate's stand on issues. The ability to raise money is one of the requirements to even become a candidate for office in Vermont: you have to raise $500 to gain the status of a candidate.

When the Continental Congress wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it included an oft-quoted statement: "All men are created equal." This idealistic statement is a far cry from the practical democracies of Greece and Rome, where eligibility to vote was based on wealth, and status was based on birth. The Declaration's statement could be taken very literally to mean that all people are equal in abilities. However, instinctively we all know this is not true. Some people are physically stronger than others, for example, and others are better problem solvers. I think that what the authors of the Declaration meant by this statement "All men are created equal" is that all people—candidates included—should be placed on equal footing. However, in today's political climate, this is not the case. Some candidates, with connections to big business, or large amounts of money of their own, have a large fund-raising advantage over other candidates who do not have the same connections or personal wealth. But for our democracy to match up with its ideals, a level playing-field is needed. The voters should make their decisions based on the candidate and his or her stand on the issues, not by the fact that s/he has more TV ads than another. A good way to provide a level playing-field is to adopt government restrictions on spending by—and on behalf of—all candidates. With spending limits in place, one's personal wealth and connections would have less influence in a political race. In theory, the candidate who ran a more effective campaign, was a more persuasive speaker, and whose positions were favored by the public would win an election.

I would argue that the Courts' ruling on Act 64, which eliminated spending caps, looks too much to the past. While court decisions are of course based on precedent, the ideals of the Declaration are progressive. I believe that we should look forward to the future of our political system. We can further our democracy, which was created with more idealistic principles than any democracy in history, by leveling the political playing-field and imposing spending limits. All Americans should have a chance to run for office in the Government. To me this means that the connections you have, and the amount of money you possess should not determine whether you have a chance of being elected to office. Your eligibility should come from the quality of your opinions on the issues at hand.