The US leads the world in election spending — and that's not a good thing

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Marco Werman: Here in the US, one thing that has a lot of people wigging out is the cost of today's midterm elections. The price goes up with every election and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics says these will be the most expensive midterms in history. No surprise. But the number? The group estimates that a total of four billion dollars have been spent to get your vote. Four billion. Lisa Rosenberg works for the Sunlight Foundation. That's a non-profit campaign finance watchdog based in Washington. So four billion. How does that compare, Lisa, to other places around the globe.

 

Lisa Rosenberg: Well, I like to say the US is the leader in campaign finance spending, and that's not necessarily a position we want. As you noted, we are on track to spend about four billion dollars during this election - this midterm election, not a presidential year. You can compare that with the general election they've just held in India which cost around five billion dollars. It doesn't sound like that much more, but if you consider the relative populations of the US and India, you can see that we are just far and above the largest spenders in the world.

 

Werman: We're also a big country with a traditionally long campaign season. I mean if you break it down math-wise proportionally, do we still come way out on top?

 

Rosenberg: Well, of course there are a number of factors why we come out so far ahead of all of these other countries, and yes, we do have basically a two-year campaign cycle. People are already starting to fund-raise for 2016. So there's no question that that adds to it. We also have no free media which many other countries have for their candidates. So candidates are forced to spend in order to basically just drown out their competitors, if nothing else. So the differences in the US versus other countries, we have no spending limits. Many other countries have spending limits, so that would limit the spending as well. We have no public financing to speak of and that too causes just more private money to come in and more expenditures to go out. So we are very unique in a lot of ways, though I don't, again, as I mentioned at the beginning, I don't think that's necessarily a good sign for the US' democracy. I think it's a dangerous sign that that much money is coming in every election cycle.

 

Werman: When you travel, Lisa, what do people in other countries say to you about the American election system?

 

Rosenberg: So that's really an interesting question because I've been very negative about the amount of money and secret money in the election, but one thing that does and that we are often looked to is that we do have disclosure rules that are reasonably effective. Now, I work for an organization that promotes transparency in government and so we would like to see more disclosure and more transparency. That said, many countries that we work with - and we've been in Latin America, we've been in Western Europe recently - and they all say, "At least you have something. At least you have some rules in place to ensure there is disclosure of the money that is directly going toward the candidates and to ensure that disclosure comes before the election and is accessible to everyone, it's accessible online."

 

Werman: But when those some people, either talking with you or on their own, that the US elections can essentially be sold to the highest bidder, how does that temper their view of American democracy?

 

Rosenberg: You get a lot of shrugs and a lot of disappointed looks. There's no question that I think people look at our democratic system from across the globe with a lot less respect than I think we would like to have from our allies or our partners or anyone, really. They shake their heads and they think it's all like House of Cards and they're not that far off. I mean we hear that a lot and I'd say a lot of it is like House of Cards. I don't think there's as many murders, but other than that, that's how people think American politics works and there is a grain of truth to that.

 

Werman: Lisa Rosenberg with the Sunlight Foundation in Washington. Thanks so much.

 

Rosenberg: Thank you.