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Campaign finance reform will not restore trust in democracy, say two social scientists

March 3, 2021
campaign finance reform flag primo(Getty Images)

Listening to science is paramount in policy making, argues David Primo, the Ani and Mark Gabrellian Professor and a professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester in an op-ed for Roll Call, which coincides with Congress’s taking up HR 1, the For the People Act of 2021.

The bill contains elements of campaign finance reform, including stricter disclosure requirements, and a call for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Yet, the proposed legislation is “riddled with claims that do not hold up when subjected to scientific scrutiny,” argues Primo.

Together with Jeffrey Milyo, a professor of economics and chair of the economics department at the University of Missouri, with whom Primo cowrote a recent book, Campaign Finance and American Democracy: What the Public Really Thinks and Why it Matters (University of Chicago Press, 2020), the researchers take issue with the underlying premises that the legislation would “fortify our democracy” against the “torrent of money flowing into our political system,” thereby protecting “the integrity of democracy.”

Instead they point to their own examination of data on attitudes toward money in politics. Their 2020 study showed, they write in the op-ed, “forty years of experimentation with campaign finance reform and virtually no evidence that it actually improves how Americans view their democracy. And decades of social science research on democracy suggests there is no reason to believe that campaign finance reforms, which are themselves the products of a democratic process, are going to improve that process in meaningful ways,” Milyo and Primo write.

The author or coauthor of several books, including Rules and Restraint: Government Spending and the Design of Institutions (University of Chicago Press, 2007), Primo is an expert on campaign finance and the federal debt. His research focuses on budget rules, corporate social responsibility, corporate political spending, and the effectiveness of campaign finance laws.

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Category: Voices & Opinion

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