If you think this election season is all about money, you’re right. The economy and deficit are major issues, and reports on the candidates’ fundraising efforts are a regular part of the news. Then there’s the money not raised by candidates, but spent on their behalf. More than $1 billionhas been spent on negative ads, mailings, robo-calls and other tactics to sway voters.  That’s double from what was spent in 2008.

The "Wild West" of Ccampaign Finance

Super PACs have become a major political force nationwide. In Massachusetts, corporate titans are bankrolling key races. The New England Center for Investigative Reporting  analyzed a new national database that combines state and federal contributions. It found three corporate executives and their wives who have chipped in more than $1 million each. Former biotech chair Reinier Beeuwkes and his wife Nancy of Concord top the list, donating more than $1.1 million to Democratic candidates and causes. A nearly equal amount was donated to republicans by New Balance chairman Jim Davis and his wife Anne of Newton. Close behind: long-time Bain Capital director Paul Edgerley and his wife Sandra who donated just under $1.1 million also to Republican efforts.

The analysis by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting showed other deep-pocketed donors contributing more than $200,000 — from investment banking to health care, finance to technology, conservative and liberal, all within the 495 loop. The common thread uniting these wealthy donors: the rise of unlimited spending by super PACs.    

“The result is this unbalanced political system where the rich and powerful are essentially shouting at each other and the average American is left out of the dialog,” says Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, an organization that lobbies for campaign finance reform. “Now we are kind of in the Wild West of anything goes,” she says. 

The Birth of Super PACs

The "Wild West" of campaign financing is in large part a result of the notorious Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010. It ruled that government could not ban corporations and unions from making direct political contributions. This, in effect, led to billionaires like George Soros and the Koch brothers to donate millions, making the race for office a financial arms race.

The first “independent expenditure -nly committees” — or super PACs — organized not long after the Citizens United ruling, after a subsequent federal court ruling  allowed for their creation. David Keating, who now runs the Center for Competitive Politics, a nonprofit that advocates for political free speech, started the group SpeechNow.org, which won the lawsuit that prompted the first super PACs to form. 

“Basically the idea I had was pretty simple,” Keating says. “Why not get a group of us together and we’ll all put money in together and then speak to other Americans about what we think should be done in terms of who should be elected to represent us in the government?"

The notion sounds pretty civil: Americans talking to other Americans. The controversy, of course, is that the Americans Keating refers to talk with their money. And the more money they have, the louder their voice.

“You have a right to free speech, but you don’t have a right to drown everybody out,” says Wilmot. “You didn’t have the right to stand on the street corner and speak through a bullhorn, and that is essentially what we have today in politics: a few people standing in the corner with a megaphone and everyone else is covering their ears.”

Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig says that as long as this system continues, fundamental issues such as global warming cannot be addressed in a rational way.

“The framers of our constitution gave us what they called a republic,” says Lessig. “But by a republic they meant a representative democracy, and by a representative democracy they meant … a government that would have a branch that would be, quote, 'dependent upon the people alone.' But we have a government which is not dependent on people alone. It's dependent upon the people and dependent upon the funders, and the funders are this tiny, tiny slice of the one percent of the people.” 

Movement for Change

There is a growing backlash to the Citizens United ruling. As part of a nationwide movement, voters in 150 Massachusetts communities — that’s half of the state’s cities and towns — will vote Nov. 6 on a non-binding question calling on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizen’s United.

Despite this bipartisan movement, Keating remains firm in his resolve that more speech is better. He says the money spent by super PACs is used to persuade, not buy votes.   

“People who believe that a lot of speech is going to somehow bamboozle the voters, well, that’s kind of a strange form of logic when you think about it,” Keating says. “If the voters are so shallow as to be misled by more speech then … the implication is we can’t trust voters to make the right decision in the first place.”

But before voters can make a decision, they have to wade through the barrage of messages coming from super PACs.