Financial barriers to politics

The Cost of Elections

Highlighting the invisible arbitrary barriers to public office

Aaron Nytes

April 8, 2024

So much attention from advocates for democracy is placed on how much money is given to candidates during the inexorable election cycle that consumes our world today. And for good reason—many journalists have referred to U.S. campaign finance laws (or the lack thereof) as enabling “legalized bribery.” This sentiment is hardly limited to reporters; 77% of Americans think there should be limits on contributions and even 66% of Republicans (85% of Democrats) support a constitutional amendment overruling Citizens United, the infamous decision that equated money with speech. This ruling was problematic in part because it allowed corporations and wealthy individuals to donate to political campaigns without a trace through Political Action Committees (PACs) and SuperPACs, their undisclosed siblings.

But wealthy individuals and corporations giving money to campaigns is only half of the equation. Candidates and their campaigns then go on to spend that money on various necessary electioneering causes. I know first-hand. In mid-August I launched a campaign to oust a Jan. 6th attendee from his Congressional seat in western Wisconsin. We’ve wrapped up the efforts since then, but my motives for starting it were many-fold. 

Primarily, no one with as many controversies as Representative Derrick Van Orden should be representing any state in Congress. Especially not my home state of Wisconsin which, perhaps surprisingly to many, was the leader of the Progressive Era and coined “the Wisconsin Idea” that emphasized democratic instead of business and lobbyist control of our government. Secondly, I wanted to learn the ins-and-outs of creating a campaign from the ground-up. The process of running for office is mystified and intimidating. The best way for someone who wants to run for office in the future is learn how to file the forms and build the websites yourself. Finally, I believe that Wisconsin, specifically the 3rd District where I declared, has the potential to swing from Republican to progressive leadership. The District’s composition of young, working class, and agricultural workers are poised to demand relief from oppressive corporate powers.

But this article isn’t about me—it’s about the experience I gained from running for office, however brief the campaign was. It’s about how corporations and wealthy individuals are on both sides of the campaign equation—spending and receiving.