Posted: April, 4, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Campaign financing used to be so uncomplicated.

It is worth remembering the way it was, now that the U.S. Supreme Court and the Delaware General Assembly have spent the week giving so much attention to the way elections are paid for. Ha, ha, not bought and paid for.

Back in the old days of paper ballots, the political parties got stashes of cash from their resident bankrollers and parceled it out to the party workers, who rounded up the votes one at a time for five dollars and a half pint.

The government was a willing co-conspirator. It was actually law in Delaware that three times as many paper ballots as there were voters would be printed, and a share of those ballots went to the political parties five or ten days before the election.

This made it convenient for the parties to mark the ballots the way they wanted. Then they gave them to the voters, who dropped the marked ballot into the ballot box and brought back a clean one from the polling place to prove they had voted and deserved their Election Day booty.

The system was such a way of life, it was described in a school textbook called "The Delaware Citizen" in the 1950s, although it left out the five-dollars-and-a-half-pint part:

"The workers usually mark the ballots in the way they hope the voters will cast their votes. The voter may, if he wishes, get a blank ballot from a political worker and mark it himself."

Then along came voting machines, and the system collapsed.

For Delaware, the day of paper ballots ended 60 years ago with the election of 1954. The parties could hand out all the five dollar bills and half pints they wanted, but they could never be sure again about what the voters did in the voting booth.

What happened behind the curtain stayed behind the curtain. Funny, sunlight is generally regarded as the best disinfectant in politics, but in this case, secrecy was.

Thereafter it was going to take ingenuity to influence the voters, and ingenuity is expensive. It meant polling and campaign advertising and political consultants, and oh yes, candidates and parties and packs of PACs constantly on the prowl for the cash to cover the expenses.

How convenient for the moneyed interests, unscrupulous or otherwise. Bribery and its risks were out. Campaign contributions were in.

The government remained a willing co-conspirator. In place of a bonanza of blank paper ballots, there was now a Rube Goldberg-like concoction of campaign finance laws that only a lawyer could love, not to mention getting paid handsomely for it.

The money still had its way.

Meanwhile, the song-and-dance goes on to waltz the money along. This week was classic.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that free speech and campaign contributions were created equal, so it disallowed a cap on the total amount people could spread around to federal candidates and the political parties. This gave the money happy feet.

Here in Delaware, the legislature did what politicians do after a campaign finance scandal, namely, the one that put Chris Tigani in federal prison and got him fined in state court for laundering contributions through employees at N.K.S. Distributors, his wholesale liquor company.

The legislature got religion and came up with a pile of bills that would tweak the laws on the disclosure of contributors and on enforcement. This was something like telling the money it would not be invited unless it put on a tie. In other words, not much.

"We should always be looking to improve our laws to strengthen the public's confidence in our political process," intoned Jack Markell, the Democratic governor.

Campaign financing has gotten complicated, but really, it has not changed.