Recent election cycles have brought an unprecedented amount of attention to super PACs and their role in American politics. Unfortunately, much of the information circulated in the media was either misleading or entirely untrue. The Institute hopes to improve public understanding about the role and legal status of super PACs.
One major misconception about super PACs is the incorrect belief that they do not disclose their donors. In fact, all super PACs are required by law to disclose their donors. This disclosure includes the name of the individual, group, or other entity that is contributing, the date on which the contribution occurred, and the amount given. Additionally, super PACs must report all of their expenditures.
Significant media coverage of super PACs focused on their ability to spend unlimited amounts, but few journalists took the time to explain why that is. Americans, whether they act individually or in voluntary associations, have the right to spend unlimited amounts of their own money promoting political speech. According to the Supreme Court, limits on contributions to candidates are only constitutionally permissible because of the potential corrupting effects of such contributions. Independent spending, on the other hand, cannot be corrupting due precisely to its independence, and therefore cannot be limited.
Contributions to PACs are limited because they can donate money directly to candidates; contributions to super PACs are unlimited because they cannot donate to candidates and must comply with special rules when interacting with candidates. These rules prohibit acting at the request of a candidate or engaging in substantial discussion with a candidate or her agents regarding the specifics of super PAC communications, including their content, intended audience, and timing.
Because of these restrictions, and the fact that independent communications might not be welcomed by the candidates these groups may support, the courts have ruled that contributions to super PACs do not pose the same risk of corruption as contributions directly to candidates. As the Supreme Court has said corruption or its appearance is the only legal justification for limiting political fundraising, super PACs are able to raise and spend unlimited amounts.
Pro-regulation advocates have repeatedly claimed that the ability of super PACs to spend unlimited funds allows them to decide who wins races. This is a shamefully anti-democratic viewpoint, and one that doesn’t fit with the evidence. For example in 2012, while super PACs certainly made many races more competitive, votes are still what count, and a lot of super PAC money went to losing candidates. American Crossroads, the super PAC backed by Karl Rove, and Restore Our Future, which promoted Mitt Romney, learned the hard way that in America, money does not buy votes.
In short, super PACs are far from the bogeyman that many media reports make them out to be. Super PACs cannot give money to candidates and there are strict regulations limiting the ability of such groups to coordinate their activities with candidates or their campaigns. Super PACs must disclose their donors and the amounts they receive from each contributor. Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest that the influence of super PACs has “bought” any elections whatsoever. Far from an evil entity, super PACs are responsible for more political speech in elections, makings races more competitive in the process.