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Does big money spell big trouble in campaigns?

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 5:09 PM EDT, Wed July 18, 2012
  • Roughly $6 billion will be spent on presidential election -- much through anonymous donors
  • The Supreme Court has ruled that this practice qualifies as free speech
  • Lawmakers can't agree on requiring big donors to disclose their identities
  • Some say they're less likely to vote because big donors have so much influence

Washington (CNN) -- When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, pronounced this week that "17 angry old white men will wake up and realize they've just bought the country," after the elections, he echoed the distaste many Americans feel at the secrecy surrounding the flood of money pouring into campaigns.

Political experts estimate $6 billion will be spent during the 2012 presidential elections — a large chunk of it via anonymous donors thanks to a Supreme Court ruling which allows unlimited corporate campaign donations. That's enough money to give 6/7ths of the world's population $1 each. Politicos and even comedians have made much ado about the influence of anonymous super rich donors and well heeled super PACs, groups that can raise money from a number of sources and spend unlimited amounts independent of and in support of political campaigns.

Democrats on Capitol Hill bemoaned failed efforts this week at forcing out of the shadows political campaign donors who give more than $10,000 to independent groups. Republicans called Democratic efforts a disingenuous attempt to silence critics by going "after the microphone instead, by trying to scare off the funders," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, long an advocate of campaign donations as a form of free speech.

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"We are determined to prove that transparency is not a radical concept," Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, said of the bill to force groups to reveal big donors' identities. "Our bill is as simple and straightforward as it gets -- if you are making large donations to influence an election, the voters in that election should know who you are. The American people are blessed with common sense. They know that when someone will not admit to something, it is usually because there is something to hide."

It's an issue that's chock-ful of sermonizing and spin.

"Every election we have a lot of hand-wringing... but this issue has been with us a long time," said Michael Toner, a former Federal Election Commission chairman and a veteran campaign finance attorney.

The fact is the Supreme Court has found that this practice qualifies as free speech.

The fact is lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have punted -- repeatedly -- on forcing big donors to disclose their identities. Lawmakers such as McConnell once supported transparency for these types of donations but later vociferously advocated anonymity to protect donors from harassment.

The fact is both major political parties and conservative and liberal groups alike have benefited for decades from money donated from the shadows.

"Yes, there are some pretty rich people who support super PACs because they have some strong ideas. The super PACS are not the evil so many people portray them to be," said Joel Gora, a Brooklyn Law School professor who worked on Buckley v. Valeo, the landmark 1970s Supreme Court case that determined spending money to influence elections is a form of free speech.

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"Just because some people can speak more than other people, the solution is not to prevent them to speaking," Gora said. "It's to help...level up free speech for everybody."

Still, something about it, for many folks, just feels, well, wrong.

A poll conducted in April of roughly 1,000 likely voters by the the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that "one in four Americans — 26% — say they are less likely to vote because big donors to super PACs have so much more influence over elected officials than average Americans."

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For some voters, big dollars means big trouble for the electoral process.

"Of course that kind of money spells trouble! If nothing else, it leaves the suspicion that the office is for sale to the highest bidder," Phil Clouser said on CNN Politics' Facebook page. "Campaign spending should be limited to whatever the office will pay for that term."

Others feel the bluster over anonymous donors is a red herring.

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney "will each spend a lot on advertising as is usually done. This election is much more important to conservatives so they are making a lot of contributions to Romney," Judi Purcell said on CNN Politics' Facebook page. "Obama has gone to a lot of fundraisers so he has a lot of money too. That's the way is it and those who don't like it don't have to like it."

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