Campaign spending rules in the United States make me glad I’m a Canadian

It's hard not to get cynical about the state of politics in the United States when you look at the amount of money that's being spent on the presidential campaigns.

As of October 28, according to an article in the Charlotte Observer, Barack Obama and the Democrats have raised — and presumably spent — about $924 million versus $758 million for Mitt Romney and the Republicans.

But that's not the end of it.

Between January 1, 2011 and October 28, 2012, Romney supporters have spent an additional $450 million and Obama supporters have expended another $100 million, through what are called super 'Political Action Committees (PACs).'

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If you're keeping score at home, that's over $2.2 billion in spending — only for the presidential campaigns — and that's not including the last week of the campaign! (By comparison, the Conservative, Liberal and NDP national campaigns in Canada were authorized to spend approximately $21 million each during the writ period in 2011.)

The American spending bonanza has been buoyed by a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows individuals, labour unions and corporations to give large amounts of money to outside spending groups like nonprofits and the super PACs.

"Unlike traditional political action committees, super PACs have no contribution limits and the money they raise can't be donated directly to candidates," notes the article in the Observer.

"The top 149 individual super PAC donors — each of whom has contributed at least $500,000 — are responsible for $290 million of the money raised."

Much of the PAC money is being used to produce and broadcast negative ads in the battleground swing states.

Here's one by the Empowered Citizens' Network asking African Americans in Ohio not to vote for Obama because Republican president Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.

Here's another one from a right-leaning non-profit group called Citizens Against Government Waste:

The limitless spending by third parties was the subject of a recent report, by the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, critical of campaign financing in the United States.

"[Recent court rulings have] undermined political equality, weakened transparency of the electoral process, and shaken citizen confidence in America's political institutions and elections," notes the report by the commission chaired by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

"Canada has faced many of the same campaign finance challenges that the U.S.A. has struggled with over the past decade. In contrast to the U.S.A., Canada has managed to strike a balance between safeguarding individual speech and protecting the overall integrity of the electoral process."

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Certainly, Canada has its share of electoral finance problems and negative attack ads as well — just ask Michael Ignatieff about the latter.

But, we're shielded from the intense nastiness we see down south because we do have meaningful caps on campaign spending and lower contribution ceilings for individuals.

And, more importantly, we have restrictions on third-party involvement: in Canada, a third party (individuals or non-profits) can only spend $188,250 on a nationwide 'ad' campaign during the lead-up to a federal election. Businesses and unions are banned from such activity.

As we get deluged with U.S. media about the presidential race over the next couple of days, we should all be thanking our lucky stars that we're not on that side of the border.