Why Super PACs Are Good for Democracy

Super PACs level the playing field between incumbents and challengers.

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Bradley Smith is the chairman of Center for Competitive Politics and the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission

Few developments in campaigning have been as vilified and misunderstood as independent expenditure PACs, or, as they are colloquially known, super PACs.

Super PACs are the result of a pair of two-year-old federal court decisions. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission held that the government cannot prohibit corporations and unions from spending money to support or oppose candidates; SpeechNow.org v. FEC upheld the constitutional right of persons spending money independently of any candidate or party to pool their resources. But even prior to these decisions, a majority of states allowed unlimited corporate independent expenditures in political races, including the six best-governed states in the Union, according to the Pew Charitable Trust and Governing magazine. In fact, there were no federal restrictions on super PACs until 1974.

Some pundits and politicians blame negative ads on super PACs. Have they forgotten the Swift Boat Veterans and Willie Horton ads? There is no evidence that super PACs have led to a greater percentage of negative ads.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

Others complain that super PACs spend "secret" money. This is just not true. By law, super PACs are required to disclose their donors. There are groups that have never had to disclose their donors, non-profits such as the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, and the NRA. If you want more disclosure, super PACs are a step forward.

Super PACs also increase competition. In 2010 Democratic candidates and party committees outspent Republicans by approximately $200 million, but super PACs offset approximately $100 million of that.

Incumbents don't like it, but political competition is a good thing. Incumbents usually outspend challengers by better than 3 to 1. Super PACs, which tend to support challengers, have nullified some of this advantage. For example, Rep. Peter DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, complains about super PACs, which spent approximately $500,000 against him in 2010. DeFazio nonetheless outspent his opponent by a sizable margin and won. Still, for the first time in years he had to campaign hard for his constituents' support. That's a good thing.

This year, super PACs helped Newt Gingrich carry his political campaign into South Carolina and Florida. Far from "drowning out" other speakers, the super PACs have given voice to tens of thousands of Gingrich supporters.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Are Super PACs Harming U.S. Politics?]

Super PACs increase political spending, but while people like to complain about political spending, research shows that increased spending improves voter knowledge of candidates and issues. Indeed, political ads are frequently a better source of information for voters than news coverage.

Incumbents criticize super PAC spending as coming from "outside groups," but if "outside groups"—that is, voters—want to give or hear other messages, that's a good thing.

In part due to added competition and voter knowledge, voter turnout was up in 2010 over the 2006 midterms, and most experts predict it will be up in 2012 over 2008.

But the best thing about the Citizens United and SpeechNow.org decisions is that they get government out of the business of regulating political speech. Who would say that you can't spend your own time and money to state your own political beliefs? Vindicating that fundamental First Amendment right is good for democracy.

Read North Carolina Democratic Rep. David Price on why super PACs strike at the heart of democracy.