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Is Money Equal To Free Speech?
By Bernard Shaw/CNN
WASHINGTON (Oct. 7) -- One Man, one vote. It's the idea at the core of America: Everyone has an equal say in who is elected and who governs. Historically, there has been a wide gap between that vision of the founding fathers and reality.
It took years of struggle before women were allowed to vote. And for blacks, the road to full voting rights was even longer.
In fact, one of the last barriers to that ideal -- one man, one vote -- wasn't overturned until the 1960s. It was called a poll tax. To vote you had to pay. It meant many blacks, and almost all of the poor, could not vote. An angry and growing consensus changed that.
John F. Kennedy championed "a constitutional amendment to outlaw the poll tax," to be "taken up by the House of Representatives. Americans should not have to pay to vote," he said.
That barrier to equality was removed by this document here at the National Archives, the original 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified 33 years ago. What it says is simple and sweeping: A citizen's right to vote shall not be denied "by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax." This gave the vote to the voiceless -- an equal vote, with no money down.
But just having the vote does not ensure an electoral system fair to all.
John Bonifaz of the National Voting Rights Institute argues that the money glut in politics still strips average voters of equality at the ballot box.
"We can't have those who have access to large sums of wealth drowning out every one else's speech," Bonifaz told CNN. "It's a question of rights of all citizen voters and candidates."
Candidates and sitting politicians do respond to campaign contributors, in theory and in practice. The more money given, the more access received. They help shape the discussion from loopholes in tax laws, to the length of a dog leash.
Attorney James Bopp represents one of several groups unhappy with reform efforts.
"Rather than limiting, restricting, prohibiting speech we should do things that would enhance the ability of people to speak and to part in our democracy such as raising the constitutional limits, allowing parties greater ability to advocate issues and to assist their candidates, maybe giving a tax credit for small contributors so they will be encouraged to contribute," he told CNN.
What the Constitution allows
However, there is one area in which everyone seems to agree. Any significant change in the way Americans finance elections will almost certainly require a new opinion from the Supreme court.
The court says Congress may limit campaign contributions -- but not how much candidates spend. That is considered freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.
There also can be no spending limits on individuals or groups independent of candidates or money spent out of a candidates own pocket. Remember Ross Perot and Steve Forbes?
In today's system, running for public office has become so expensive that it's more a passage for the richly connected than an avenue for those without money.
Most politicians say, however, that this is the only system they know. Money talks, they listen.
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