This presidential election is on track to cost nearly $2 billion. It's a staggering tab, and those who kick in big money to cover it stand to gain outsized influence over policy decisions by whoever wins. Your voice may not be heard as loudly as a result.
Where they stand:
Both President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney benefit from current campaign finance rules. Both have outside "super" political committees working in their favor. Those groups can raise unlimited cash to help them win the White House this November.
Obama has argued in favor of campaign finance restrictions, particularly when, during his 2010 State of the Union address, he chastised a Supreme Court ruling that helped to strip away limits on how money can be spent in elections. Romney supports the high court's decision, commonly known as Citizens United, but says he wishes he could find a way to get money out of politics. Both men are using the lax rules with gusto.
Why it matters:
Money has always gone hand-in-hand with politics. But recent court decisions have stripped away restrictions on how elections are financed, allowing the very rich to afford more speech than the rest of us.
In turn, super PACs have flourished, thanks as well to limitless contributions from millionaires and billionaires, including major contributors with business before the government.
Public disclosure of campaign finances gives voters a look into who's behind those pricey _ and often very misleading television ads _ trying to get Obama re-elected or Romney to take his place. But the information is often so vague as to be almost impenetrable. To boot, nonprofit outfits run so-called issue ads that help or hurt candidates, but don't have to reveal their donors.
Advocates pushing for campaign finance changes say disclosure, put in place during the Watergate era, fosters accountability by allowing the public to evaluate who's financing candidates and if those bankrollers have conflicts of interests.
Take Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who has contributed more than $40 million to super PACs supporting Republican candidates and has attended major Romney fundraising events. Adelson's Las Vegas Sands Corp. has been under scrutiny by regulators and the Justice Department for its dealings in China. Adelson's representatives say the probe stems from a disgruntled employee's accusations.
Whatever the case, would those investigations disappear if Romney were elected president? Would they under Obama if Adelson suddenly gave lots of cash to a super PAC supporting his re-election?
Obama, for his part, had to return more than $200,000 in donations from a family tied to a Mexican fugitive.
The presidency isn't the only office affected by super PAC spending. Outside groups have doled out millions in ads to influence congressional races. And the Supreme Court recently said its 2010 ruling allowing corporations to use unlimited money applies to states, too.
So would a developer help push a city councilman out of office if he opposes a zoning law? Can an influential businesswoman see favorable laws passed from a state senator who benefited from millions of dollars in ads she bought to support him in his last election?
Proponents of such looser rules say there should be few, if any, limits on what is essentially free speech. They say that not just the wealthy benefit; everyone can pool money to run ads. Some say even federal disclosure rules are anathema to anonymous speech.
For now, state and federal disclosure rules remain intact and give the public a look _ albeit a narrow one _ into big donors backing the very candidates who write and enforce laws.