I've recently been exposed to several examples of campaign finance laws in action here in Texas and it has become clear to me that these laws are inconsistent, arbitrary, and absurd. They seem to serve little purpose but to hide what the actual sources of money are and to create jobs for political middlemen and armies of lawyers and accountants. I guess creating all of those jobs is a good thing, but I'd rather see those kinds of jobs vacant and those particular hacks walking the streets looking for honest work.
The same problems exist with national campaign finance laws, which are just another level of complexity added onto state laws. Some progress was made with the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United vs. FEC case earlier this year, but there remain many inconsistent campaign finance laws on the federal level and even more on the state level.
In one recent example just covered in the news, the Texas Green Party got its candidates on the ballot using money from an out of state PAC which provided over $500,000 to finance a petition drive. This was theoretically a rule violation, but the party went to court and got a ruling that the cost of getting petitions signed was an administrative expense, which made the PAC contribution legal, because the campaign finance law allows PAC money to be spent for operating expenses, but not for actual campaign expenses. What's more, the party is also distanced from the actual source of the money because they don't have to report who the PAC got the money from.
Similarly, a Texas PAC got in trouble for using money from a single donor outside the spending rules. The couldn't spend money for their candidate without violating spending limits for candidate ads, but could spend that money on attack ads against his opponent so long as they didn't mention their candidate's name. But they also had to jump through more nonsensical hoops. Although they got $250,000 from one individual, they had to scrape together another nine donations for a few dollars each to meet a requirement for a minimum of 10 contributors before their PAC could spend money. They got around this by taking a single additional $200 donation from another PAC run by a union which gets their money from multiple contributors. So that technically qualified them as a legitimate PAC — at least it would have if they had remembered they couldn't run any ads until at least 60 days after they began operations. And again, no one knows where that union PAC really got any of their money from.
The whole system is enormously complex, with rules which make no sense at all. You can hide where money came from by having a PAC collect it and then give it to the candidate, or by having a PAC spend money directly on ads against your opponent while the campaign spends its money for its candidate. There are strict limits on what corporations and individuals can give the candidates, but they can give huge amounts to PACs and that gets around the restrictions. Or you can just have all your employees and relatives give the maximum amount until it adds up to millions.
All of this is ostensibly to try to make elections more fair, but all it really does is give an edge to those who know how to use the loopholes and game the system. The Supreme Court has already ruled that a campaign contribution is essentially free speech, so why not just scrap the entire burdensome mess and take that to its logical extreme and really make the system free and open?