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Most expensive election in U.S. history

Published November 11. 2012 4:00AM

The fact that Mitt Romney's billionaire pals could not deliver him the White House, or that Linda McMahon's $100 million spent over two campaigns did not even get her close to winning a Senate seat, should not lead to the conclusion that the outrageous amount of money being spent on elections in the United States is irrelevant.

True, if the amount of money spent on a campaign determined the winner, Mr. Romney would be polishing up on his inaugural speech right now, and Mrs. McMahon, instead of her Democratic opponent Chris Murphy, would be a senator-elect. Republicans, most certainly, would not have lost seats in the U.S. Senate.

To their credit the American people, in making their candidate choices, saw past the negative ad carpet bombing. And we suspect at some point there was a diminishing return for all those TV commercials. People began to tune them out, fast forward through them with their DVRs, and grew to resent the candidate on whose behalf the commercials were provided more than the candidate they attacked.

But however ineffective, this much money in politics still threatens to distort the process. It turns voters off, drowns out serious debate and invites distortion rather than illumination.

Most dangerously it can leave elected leaders beholden to powerful special interests and individuals. And that historically leads to scandal and corruption.

It also just seems fundamentally, even morally wrong. One hundred million dollars to try to gain a Senate seat; an estimated record six billion dollars spent all told during the past election; $60 million invested by a single contributor, casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, to bankroll conservative super PACs; is there no better use for this money, no better way to run an election?

Both presidential candidates raised plenty of money, about $1 billion each, and both had plenty of outside spending help, more than $1 billion, triple the amount in 2010, but with Mr. Romney enjoying a roughly 70 percent to 30 percent advantage in outside money over President Obama.

Much of this deluge of campaign money results from the U.S. Supreme Court's awful Citizens United decision, which tossed out a long history of allowing Congress and state legislatures to place limits on spending to influence elections. Equating money spent on campaigns with speech, and giving corporations the same status as people, the court ruled the Constitution's free speech guarantee meant lawmakers could not place limits on contributions to super PACs.

With that decision now the law of the land, different strategies are necessary. That can start with passage of tough federal disclosure laws so the public can at least know the identities of the corporations, special interest groups and individuals contributing the money for these attacks.

There is no stopping someone like Mrs. McMahon from spending his or her own fortune trying to get elected, nor should there be. But voters have the right to know who is funding a candidate, or attacking that candidate's opponent, in hopes of gaining future influence.

And maybe, just maybe, all those billionaires having seen their money fail to place a Republican conservative in the White House, or regain the Senate for the GOP, will be less likely to invest os much next time. We could all do with a few less campaign commercials.

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