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Votes Out-Muscle Dollars in Elections, Professor Abu El-Haj Says in Scholars Strategy Podcast

Tabatha Abu El-Haj

February 24, 2017

Many citizen activists are calling for campaign finance reform, yet the role of money in electoral politics is widely misunderstood, Professor Tabatha Abu El-Haj explained in the "No Jargon" podcast aired by the Scholars Strategy Network on Feb. 22.

“The money is a symbol of a wider frustration that people feel that their elected officials are not really focused on serving their interests,” said Abu El-Haj, whose article “Beyond Campaign Finance Reform” appeared in The Boston College Law Review in 2016.

While much of the public thinks the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United created an explosion of political influence by corporations, Abu El-Haj said that the decision had far less impact than many people believe.

“The Koch Brothers could have spent as much money as they currently spend on elections before or after Citizens United. That made no difference whatsoever,” she said, adding that corporations have long been permitted to spend money to influence public thinking about issues.  

Prior to the ruling, she said, a company like Exxon could have spent unlimited funds “to inform or misinform the public about climate change…What it couldn’t do under the pre-Citizens United regime, is say ‘and therefore we support this candidate for office.’”

The First Amendment ensures that corporations will be able to exploit loopholes in the tax code and pursue other strategies that ensure that candidates will respond to the donor class, she added.

“Money has an uncanny way of finding its way into the political process,” she said. “The problem in my mind is that there’s too much of a wedge between politicians and their constituents. We need to start working on political rather than legal solutions.”

The best way to make elected officials accountable, Abu El-Haj said, is for citizens to work together to ensure that incumbents face challenges in primary elections...and then vote in them.

“The key is to channel that individual interest in politics into associations that are effectively able to make elections more competitive and to demand responsiveness,” she said.