CRACKING DOWN ON CORPORATE CORRUPTION AND SHELL COMPANIES

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

There’s a piece of very good news in the battle against corporate corruption and the use of shell companies to engage in criminal and unsavory activity. You may recall the defense spending bill, called the National Defense Authorization Act, that Congress passed last December and then, on New Year’s Day, overrode President Trump’s veto of it. (Trump vetoed it because it renames military bases currently named for Confederate generals and because it doesn’t repeal the liability protection for social media platforms when third parties post offensive or libelous material.) Given that it was one of a very few pieces of legislation actual passed by Congress, a number of unrelated items (called riders) were attached to it as the only way to get them passed.

One of the riders attached to the recent defense spending bill was the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), which will significantly inhibit the use of shell companies for money laundering and other illegal or unsavory activities. A shell company is a legal entity established without any actual business operation or significant assets that is typically used to obscure ownership and hide financial transactions from law enforcement and/or the public. The CTA is the most significant financial industry reform addressing money laundering since the Patriot Act, which was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. [1]

The CTA will require a company to disclose the names of its owners, i.e., anyone with a 25% or greater ownership share or who exercises substantial control over the company. This information will be in a confidential registry maintained by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) at the U.S. Treasury Department. FinCEN captures and analyzes financial transactions in order to combat money laundering, terrorism financing, drug trafficking, and other illegal activity. Its data is available only to law enforcement and to financial institutions (that use it to scrutinize the entities involved in financial transactions). The CTA also increases penalties for money laundering, streamlines cooperation among banks and foreign law enforcement, and significantly expands the rewards for whistleblowers, allowing them to receive up to 30% of money seized by law enforcement. [2]

The CTA responded to a decade of disclosures of the abusive uses of shell companies led by the reporting of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The ICIJ has repeatedly documented how criminals and the rich have used shell companies to hide their wealth and move their money. It investigated and reported on the use of shell companies based on the leaked Panama Papers in 2016, the 2017 Paradise Papers leak, and its Secrecy for Sale project, which began in 2012 and continues to today. ICIJ reporting has disclosed that Delaware, Wyoming, and Nevada are favorite locations to set up shell companies, in addition to offshore tax havens. [3] Its analysis in 2020 of leaked FinCEN reports of suspicious financial transactions identified shell companies transferring money through U.S. banks for criminals in Russia, China, Iran, and Syria.

ICIJ’s reporting has made it clear that the U.S. has been the country of choice for criminals and wealthy individuals to set up anonymous shell companies that, in addition to tax evasion, have facilitated bribery and other illegal payoff schemes, as well as money laundering for terrorism, political corruption, and a variety of criminal enterprises including drug, arms, and human trafficking.

The U.S. political system is a swamp of money and increasingly the true sources of political contributions and campaign spending are hidden, a trend exacerbated by the use of shell companies. While it is illegal for foreign individuals or entities to contribute to U.S. campaigns, a shell company makes the true source of campaign spending anonymous. Therefore, it is highly likely that illegal foreign money has been going into U.S. political campaigns via shell companies.

The Trump campaign created a shell company, American Made Media Consultants, that spent more than $759 million of Trump’s campaign funds (over 50% of the campaign’s spending). This obscured the flow of money including who was paid when and how much. Nonetheless, it is clear that at least eight individuals who were paid by the Trump campaign were also paid in connection with the January 6, 2021, rally that led to the storming of the Capitol. [4] Previously, Trump had personally used shell companies, including to pay off Stormy Daniels, the pornography actress who says Trump had an affair with her. [5]

The Corporate Transparency Act is an important step forward in increasing the transparency of financial transactions. It will, among other things, reduce corporate and political corruption, inhibit criminal and terrorism finances, and reduce tax evasion. This is a good step but there’s lots more to do, such as strengthening prosecution of white-collar crime. More on that in a future post.

[1]      Talking Points, 1/11/20, “New law cracks down on shell companies to combat corruption,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[2]      Cox Richardson, H., 12/27/20, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/december-27-2020)

[3]      Mustufa, A., 12/11/20, “Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (https://www.icij.org/investigations/paradise-papers/advocates-celebrate-major-us-anti-money-laundering-victory/)

[4]      Massoglia, A., 1/22/21, “Shell companies and ‘dark money’ may hide details of Trump ties to DC protests,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2021/01/trump-tied-to-dc-protests-dark-money-and-shell-companies/)

[5]      Cox Richardson, H., 12/27/20, see above

UNITY MEANS VOTING FOR ALL: FEDERAL LEGISLATION

In a democracy built on the premise that all people are created equal and a commitment to one person, one vote, the electoral goal should be a guaranteed right to vote (which does not currently exist) and 100% voter participation. Work toward these goals would be a strong unifying force. Unfortunately, there are many Republicans who are working to restrict voting in ways that give them an electoral advantage. As my previous post documented, the good news is that at least 37 states are considering over 540 bills to expand or ease access to voting. This is almost three times as many such bills as had been introduced a year ago. The bad news is that 33 states are considering 165 bills that would restrict access to voting. This is almost five times as many such bills as were under consideration a year ago. [1]

There’s more good news at the federal level where there are  two important pieces of legislation that will protect and support every citizen’s right to vote: [2]

  • For the People Act (H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate) which addresses many issues related to making it easier to vote; promoting one person, one vote; controlling campaign spending; and enhancing ethical standards for public officials.
  • John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act which focuses on eliminating racial discrimination in states’ electoral systems and addresses election oversight shortcomings that the Supreme Court created when it gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

The For the People Act was passed by the House in 2019 but ignored by Senate Republicans led by Senator McConnell (KY). It has been reintroduced in both the House and the Senate and would:

  • Improve access to voting by:
    • Streamlining voter registration
    • Expanding early voting and taking other steps to reduce waiting times at the polls
    • Expanding and simplifying voting by mail
    • Restoring voting rights to people who have completed their sentence for a felony
  • Promote one person, one vote, as well as voting integrity and security by:
    • Ending gerrymandering of districts
    • Regulating purges of voting rolls to prevent partisan voter suppression
    • Providing $1 billion for upgrading the security of state voting systems, including requiring auditable paper ballots
    • Increasing oversight of voting machine vendors
    • Restructuring the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to strengthen its enforcement of election laws
  • Increase disclosure of campaign spending by:
    • Requiring all organizations engaged in political activity to disclose large donors
    • Requiring disclosure of spending on on-line political ads
    • Eliminating the funneling of campaign spending through multiple entities in order to prevent donor identification
  • Enhance the value of small campaign donations and limit the influence of wealthy donors by:
    • Creating a 6 to 1 match for small donations to candidates who opt into a system that matches small donations with public funds (Note: This is a critically important strategy that is working in New York City and elsewhere to enlarge and diversify the pool of candidates who run, engage and amplify the voices of regular people, and limit the influence of wealthy donors. [3])
    • Raising the funds to match small donations through a surcharge on fines corporations pay for illegal activity and on tax cheating by the wealthy
    • Dramatically lowering the maximum campaign contribution limit for candidates who opt into the matching system
  • Enhance ethics laws governing public officials and strengthen their enforcement by:
    • Requiring Presidents to disclose their tax returns
    • Strengthening conflict of interest and financial divestment standards for public officials
    • Slowing the revolving door between related private and public sector jobs
    • Prohibiting Members of Congress from serving on corporate boards
    • Strengthening the Office of Government Ethics and its enforcement powers
    • Closing loopholes in the regulations governing lobbyists and foreign agents
    • Creating a code of ethics for Supreme Court Justices

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is designed to respond to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, fixing what the Court said made the law unconstitutional. The implementation of voting restrictions accelerated sharply immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision, with Republicans using them to target non-white and other voters who tend to vote for Democrats. The bill would also address other issues related to racial discrimination in voting systems. This bill was passed by the House in 2019 but was ignored by Senate Republicans led by Senator McConnell (KY). It has been reintroduced in both the House and the Senate and would:

  • Establish new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain preclearance before changing voting procedures. (Preclearance means receiving approval from the Department of Justice before making changes to voting procedures.)
    • The new criteria focus on particular practices that have been problematic in the past because they restricted access to voting, often in a discriminatory way. These practices include onerous vote ID requirements and the changing of district boundaries, voting locations, early and mail-in voting opportunities, and voter registration list maintenance procedures.
    • All jurisdictions (e.g., counties, cities, and towns) would be required to obtain preapproval for implementing more stringent requirements for documentation to vote (such as IDs) than those established by federal law for vote by-mail registration or than those present in state law.
  • Require appropriate notification to the public of changes in voting procedures.
  • Clarify the circumstances under which a court must immediately block changes to voting procedures that have been challenged.
  • Establish standards and procedures for deploying federal election observers when problems with voting access are identified, particularly a serious threat of racial discrimination.

There is strong bipartisan support for the provisions of these bills that move toward guaranteeing the right to vote and making it easy to do so, as well as protecting the integrity of our elections. It is particularly noteworthy that this level of support exists despite all the Republican attacks on many of these aspects of our voting systems, especially voting by mail. For example: [4]

  • 86% support working to prevent foreign interference; 7% are opposed.
  • 84% want enhanced election security; 8% are opposed.
  • 74% support non-partisan determination of electoral districts; 11% are opposed.
  • 68% want 15 days of early voting; 19% are opposed.
  • 60% support same day voter registration; 29% are opposed.
  • 59% support automatic voter registration; 29% are opposed.
  • 58% want to vote by mail; 35% are opposed.

I encourage you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and urge them to support efforts to make it easier to vote, to encourage every citizen to vote, to end racial and partisan discrimination in states’ election systems, and to enhance the integrity and security of our elections.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Brennan Center for Justice, 2/8/21, “Voting laws roundup 2021,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-2021-0)

[2]      Perez, M., & Lau, T., 1/28/21, “How to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act,” The Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/how-to-restore-and-strengthen-voting-rights-act)

[3]      Vandewalker, I., 2/4/21, “How to change incentives for both politicians and donors,” The Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/how-change-incentives-both-politicians-and-donors)

[4]      Cox Richardson, H., 2/25/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/february-25-2021)

UNITY MEANS VOTING FOR ALL

In a democracy built on the promise of all people created equal and a commitment to one person, one vote, the electoral goal should be 100% voter turnout. Working toward this goal would be a strong unifying force and would provide a strong unifying message for the country. The states, which run our elections, and their election officials should work to make it easy to vote and to encourage people to register and vote.

Unfortunately, there are many Republicans who are working to restrict voting in ways that give them an electoral advantage. This is anything but unifying. A national law establishing election standards and overseeing states to ensure they live up to our democracy’s voting goals would make sense.

At the federal level, there are  two pieces of legislation (which I will describe in more detail in a future post) that will protect and support every citizen’s right to vote: [1]

  • For the People Act (H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate) which addresses many of the election oversight issues that the Supreme Court eliminated in its 2013 decision gutting the Voting Rights Act
  • John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act which focuses on racial discrimination in voting.

At the state level, the very high voter turnout in 2020, partially propelled by no-excuse mail-in voting and early voting implemented as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, is a great starting point to work toward further increasing voter participation. Indeed, to-date, 37 states are considering 541 bills to expand or ease access to voting. This is almost three times as many such bills as had been introduced in 29 states at this point a year ago. [2]

However, 33 states are considering 165 bills that would restrict access to voting. This is almost five times as many such bills as were under consideration in 15 states a year ago. In general, these restrictive bills have been introduced by Republicans in Republican-dominated legislatures, particularly in states where Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, lost. These efforts are not the way to unify America. [3]

The 541 bills to expand or ease access to voting have been introduced in a wide variety of states, from New York (87 bills) and New Jersey (38 bills) to Texas (67 bills), Mississippi (38 bills) and Missouri (26 bills). These bills primarily focus on:

  • Making it easy to vote by mail. Eleven states will consider bills allowing all voters to vote by mail without requiring a reason or “excuse” for needing an absentee ballot. Twelve states have bills that would give voters the opportunity to correct technical mistakes on their mailed-in ballots. Twelve states have bills that would allow or require drop boxes for returning mail ballots. Nine states might extend the postmark or delivery date deadline for mailed ballots. Fourteen states will consider allowing election officials to start processing mail ballots before election day, which would speed up the counting of votes and the availability of election results.
  • Expanding opportunities for early voting. Eighteen states will consider allowing early voting for the first time, lengthening the early voting period, and/or increasing the number of early voting sites.
  • Making it easier to register to vote. Fifteen states have bills that would allow same-day registration, i.e., registering to vote on the same day that one votes. Fifteen states will consider implementing automatic voter registration, e.g., registering people to vote when they get a driver’s license or have some other interaction with a state agency. Five states will consider adding on-line voter registration.
  • Restoring voting rights to those with criminal convictions. Nineteen states have bills to restore voting rights to or ease voting restrictions on people with a criminal conviction.

The 165 bills that would restrict or complicate access to voting are under consideration in 33 states, with Arizona (19 bills), Pennsylvania (14 bills), Georgia (11 bills), and New Hampshire (10 bills) having the most such bills. The rationale for these requirements is almost always the supposed danger of fraud, which is non-existent for all practical purposes. However, President Trump’s unrelenting but false assertion of voter fraud and a stolen election have fed this narrative. These bills primarily focus on:

  • Making it harder to vote by mail. Nine states will consider eliminating no-excuse voting by mail or tightening the excuse requirement. Seven states have bills to prevent the sending of a mail ballot to a voter unless they specifically request one, while four states might prohibit sending an application for a mail ballot without a request. Six states have bills that would reduce the ability of voters to register permanently for a mail ballot. Some states will consider bills that require witnesses or notarization for mail ballots or requests for mail ballots. Some states will consider restrictions on how mail ballots can be returned, including requiring an ID, prohibiting the use of drop boxes, and even prohibiting returning them by mail. Some states have bills proposing restrictions on the counting of mail ballots based on deadlines for postmark or receipt date, or through requiring signature matching.
  • Imposing stricter voter identification (ID) requirements. Eighteen states will consider imposing new or more stringent voter ID requirements for in-person or mail voting.
  • Making it harder to register to vote. Five states have bills that would eliminate same-day registration and ten more have bills that would cut back on same-day registration. Four states have bills that would require proof of citizenship to register to vote and four states have bills that would eliminate, prohibit, or suspend automatic voter registration.
  • Allowing more aggressive purges of registered voters. Twelve states have bills that would expand the purging of voters from the rolls of registered voters.

So, the good news is that there are more efforts in the states to expand and streamline access to voting than there are efforts to restrict voting. The bad news is that there are significant efforts to restrict voting plus there is much damage to be undone, given that Republicans have been engaged in successful efforts to restrict voting in ways that benefit them politically for at least ten years.

The efforts to and success in restricting voting accelerated after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Republicans have blocked efforts in Congress to replace parts of the Act that are clearly necessary to prevent states from engaging in targeted voting restrictions, often aimed at non-white voters (who tend to vote for Democrats).

Targeted voter suppression has been a successful strategy for the Republicans. For example, the 2018 Governor’s race in Georgia and the 2016 presidential race were almost certainly stolen by the Republicans due to the success of their voter suppression activities. The 2000 presidential race, Gore versus Bush, was also almost certainly stolen, not by the vote counting debacle, but by the permanent disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of people with felony convictions in Florida (who are disproportionately Black and likely to vote for Democrats).

At the state level, I encourage you to contact your state officials – your Governor, State Senator, State Representative, and Secretary of State or whomever runs your state’s elections – and urge them to support efforts to make it easier to vote and to encourage every citizen to vote.

[1]      Perez, M., & Lau, T., 1/28/21, “How to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act,” The Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/how-to-restore-and-strengthen-voting-rights-act)

[2]      Brennan Center for Justice, 2/8/21, “Voting laws roundup 2021,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-2021-0)

[3]      Wines, M., 1/31/21, “After record turnout, GOP tries to make it harder to vote,” The Boston Globe from the New York Times

POLICIES FOR UNIFYING AMERICA

Unifying America requires economic security and equal opportunity for all. If one’s choices in life (i.e., one’s liberty and freedom) are constrained by an unfair criminal justice system or unaffordable necessities of life such as food, shelter, health care, and education, the result will be anger, frustration, and divisiveness. The fear and stress of economic insecurity, especially the loss of economic security one thought one had, make people susceptible to demagoguery and manipulation.

Among the public, there is strong bipartisan support for policies that support the well-being of all Americans and of our democracy. Most Americans actually agree on the problems we face and the solutions for them, so long as politicians do not make them partisan issues. This can be seen in the strong support President Biden is getting for his executive actions and his push for a strong pandemic relief bill, which will support the general welfare, i.e., the well-being of all Americans. (See my previous post for more detail on these.) Beyond these immediate steps, there are other policies that are needed to unify Americans by moving toward the aspirations of our democracy for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

Unity requires fair and even-handed accountability based on the rule of law. Ignoring violations of the law and “moving on” without accountability is unfair and divisive because it means some people are not held to the same standard of accountability as others are. Unity is not achieved by turning a blind eye to sedition, insurrection, and domestic terrorism (see my earlier post on this topic) or to other criminal behavior. If accountability does not make clear what is unacceptable behavior in our society, lawlessness and anarchy will be the result. Pardons of criminal behavior by allies are antithetical to the rule of law and accountability.

Accountability for white collar crimes is an essential part of achieving unity. When employers’ violations of labor laws (e.g., on pay, union organizing, and safe working conditions), when insider trading and financial manipulation on Wall Street, when corporate pollution and unsafe products, when conflicts of interest and self-dealing by government officials, and so forth are not punished, our criminal justice system is unfair and will be viewed, accurately, as biased. Lax enforcement of the law for certain types of crimes or criminals creates disunity, not unity.

Unity in our democracy means allowing and encouraging every citizen to vote and giving each vote equal impact. The suppression of voting, particularly when targeted at certain groups, is antithetical to our democracy’s promise of equality for all. Voting should be easy and convenient in terms of the places and times for voting. Early voting and mail-in voting (including drop boxes for mail-in ballots) should be broadly and easily available. Efforts to restrict voting do not promote unity. Onerous identification requirements for voters are voter suppression; there is absolutely no evidence of any voter fraud, except very occasional, isolated, local incidents that ID requirements typically would not address. Gerrymandering of districts for state and federal offices reduces the impact of some voters’ votes and has no place in our democracy; it fosters divisiveness, not unity. The standard of one person, one vote, means that each vote should have as equal an impact as possible.

Unity requires acknowledgement and healing of the effects of the deep and long-standing racism in our country. Racism and white supremacy are key components of our current disunity and of the heightened focus on the Confederate flag and Confederate statues and symbols.

The failure to hold the leaders of the Confederacy accountable after the Civil War and the “moving on” that let them resume control of state and local governments in the South was devastating to African-Americans.  It resulted in Jim Crow laws and a racist criminal “justice” system that subjugated the supposedly emancipated African-Americans after the Civil War. This failure to demand accountability led directly to the racism in our society today. Racism has been used politically by the Republican Party since Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 and it exploded with Donald Trump and his presidency and takeover of the Republican Party. Our society’s racism has been aided and abetted by many Democrats and non-partisans, as well, over many years.

In the late 1700s, equal opportunity and “all men are created equal” applied only to white men with property. Over the past 230 years, the United States has slowly and fitfully moved toward its aspirational vision of equal opportunity for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender and gender identity, religion, and other characteristics. But we still have a long way to go. Our democracy’s vision has been and is undermined by intolerant white men and other white people who fail to realize or accept that it requires extending rights and equality to everyone – liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for ALL. [1]

America needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of what South Africa did to end apartheid and what Canada has done to address its treatment of its native populations. We must acknowledge the harm done and implement restorative justice for both Blacks and Native Americans. We need to act aggressively now to stop current discrimination, while pursuing a serious, in-depth examination of what has transpired and how to achieve justice.

On these issues and many others, unifying America requires that Congress, state legislators, and our political parties work together on policies that are in the public interest and support the well-being of all Americans. Obstructionism must end. It is anti-democratic and divisive. Ideas and policy proposals need to be considered based on whether they are fair and good for the general welfare, not whether they are Democratic or Republican. Decisions need to be made based on whether they move our society toward the aspirational vision of our democracy, not based on some politicizing label someone may try to attach to them or to a proposed solution.

Polling of the public can provide important guidance on what people want, but true leadership by our elected officials is also needed. There’s strong evidence from polling and elsewhere that people want:

  • Health care for all and reduced drug prices;
  • Serious actions to address climate change;
  • Steps to reduce gun violence;
  • Wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes and other steps to reduce economic inequality;
  • An end to special interest influence on policy making through campaign spending, lobbying, and the revolving door;
  • Actions to increase economic security, including increasing the minimum wage and addressing housing and food insecurity;
  • Improvements to our education systems: affordable higher education; affordable, universal, high quality early education and child care; and equity and quality in K-12 education; and
  • Strong enforcement of antitrust laws to reduce the monopolistic marketplace power of large corporations as well as the undemocratic concentration of economic and political power they hold.

President Biden is taking actions that are unifying America. He is making all Americans feel like the government is doing something good for them, for the good of our country, and not just for special interests and wealthy individuals and corporations. Biden has stated repeatedly that he will work for the good of all Americans whether they voted for him or not, and that he will reach out for sincere bipartisanship. This rhetoric and these actions are essential if we want unity.

People calling for unity are being hypocritical if they aren’t committed to honestly working toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. Without such a commitment, both in action and in rhetoric, there can be no unity. Our aspirational principles and ideals are what make our democratic republic exceptional. To work toward unity and achieving our democracy’s goals, we and our elected leaders must undertake an honest search for the common good, common ground, and how to best to promote the general welfare via government of, by, and for all the people.

[1]      Baptiste, N., Jan.-Feb. 2021,  “Trump lost. But racism will probably win again,” Mother Jones  (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/12/trump-lost-but-racism-will-probably-win-again/)

PROGRESSIVE PROGRESS IN THE 2020 ELECTIONS

Despite the mixed messages of the 2020 elections, there were significant progressive gains and the public continues to strongly support many progressive policies. Despite the claims of some centrist or corporate Democrats that progressive candidates and messages undermined some Democratic candidates, the four most visible progressives in the U.S. House (the so-called Squad) all got re-elected with between 64% and 87% of the vote: Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Omar (MN), Pressley (MA), and Tlaib (MI). In addition, five new, similarly progressive candidates were elected to the House, three of whom beat conservative Democratic incumbents in their primary races: Newman (IL), Bush (MO), Leger Fernandez (NM), Bowman (NY), and Jones (NY). [1] Furthermore, the grassroots organizing and energizing of Representatives Omar and Tlaib were significant factors in Biden’s wins in Minnesota and Michigan. In Omar’s district, her extensive grassroots efforts resulted in 88% turnout, compared to 67% nationally. [2]

Of the 93 sponsors of the Green New Deal in the U.S. House, 92 won re-election. All the congressional candidates running for re-election who supported Medicare for All won. [3] A recent poll found that 72% of the public support “transitioning to a government-run healthcare plan.”

In addition to the U.S. House, progressive candidates are running and winning in state and local races all over the country. Some of these candidates are in places and races you wouldn’t expect, such as an openly lesbian woman running and winning for sheriff in southwestern Ohio  (70% of the vote against the incumbent). [4] In Maine, Chloe Maxmin upset the Republican leader of the state Senate in a rural, Republican district. A one-term Representative, she had introduced Green New Deal legislation and campaigned on progressive issues such as broadband access and public transportation. [5] She won with 51% of the vote. Eight of nine state Senate candidates endorsed by the progressive Maine People’s Alliance, including Maxmin, won. In addition,  nine members of a progressive group of former teachers running for the Maine legislature won their races. [6]

Many progressive ballot initiatives were passed across the country in November: [7]

  • Arizona: Increased its income tax rate by 3.5% on those making over $250,000 to increase funding for public education.
  • Colorado: Provided 12 weeks of paid family leave.
  • Colorado: Joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact to bypass the Electoral College.
  • Florida: Increased its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026.
  • Mississippi: Required a run-off election in statewide office races if the winner doesn’t receive 50% of the vote.
  • Oregon: Limited campaign contributions and spending, as well as required disclosure of contributions, expenditures, and sponsors of political ads.
  • Virginia: Established an independent redistricting commission to draw electoral district lines rather than letting the legislature do so.

The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care), which provides free health insurance to low-income families and individuals, continues to enjoy broad public support, including by two-thirds of the adults in the 12 states that have not taken advantage of this federal program. In 2020, Missouri (in August) and Oklahoma (in June) used ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid when their state legislators refused to do so. Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah had done this in 2018 and Maine did it in 2017. An estimated 650,000 essential, front-line workers would get health insurance if the remaining 12 states adopted Medicaid expansion. In states that have expanded Medicaid, only 17% of workers are uninsured compared to 30% in states that haven’t done so. [8]

Finally, without the voter suppression tactics of the Republicans, the November election would have been an overwhelming landslide for Biden. In nineteen states, Republicans have implemented needlessly strict voter ID requirements that keep disproportionately Democratic voters from voting. It is estimated that 25 million citizens do not have a government-issued ID that is required to vote. With reasonable voter ID requirements, Biden would most probably have won Texas and Ohio and the Georgia result wouldn’t have been close. In Florida, the Republicans most probably stole the election from Biden by defying a successful ballot initiative that restored the voting rights of people who had been convicted of a felony and had completed their prison sentences. Republicans’ voter suppression efforts also included limiting the number of drop-off boxes for early voters’ ballots and closing polling locations in multiple states, making it more difficult for voters to vote and leading to long waiting lines to vote. No one knows how many voters were unable to vote or were discouraged from voting by these tactics. [9]

The debacle President Trump and his Postmaster General DeJoy created at the U.S. Postal Service resulted in hundreds of thousands of ballots not being counted. The exact number is unknown but some ballots were simply not delivered and many were delivered after the deadlines for counting them; 30 states do not count ballots that arrive after election day and the others require them to be postmarked by election day and set various deadlines for their receipt. [10]

So, for all of you who are supporters of progressive policies as I am, we’re making progress. Let’s keep organizing, lobbying, and working for our progressive goals of economic and social justice and a democracy that works. Poll after poll shows that the American public supports progressive policies. We need to get our elected officials to act on behalf of all of us rather than on behalf of their wealthy campaign contributors.

[1]      Ballotpedia, retrieved 12/12/20, “United States House of Representatives elections, 2020,” (https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_House_of_Representatives_elections,_2020)

[2]      Stancil, K., 11/5/20, “Omar and Tlaib credited as ‘major factors’ in securing Biden victories in Minnesota and Michigan,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/05/omar-and-tlaib-credited-major-factors-securing-biden-victories-minnesota-and)

[3]      Stancil, K., 11/9/20, “99% of Green New Deal co-sponsors won their races this cycle: analysis,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/09/99-green-new-deal-co-sponsors-won-their-races-cycle-analysis)

[4]      Hightower, J., October 2020, “ ‘Good trouble’ candidates are winning – and rebuilding politics from the ground up,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/good-trouble-candidates-are-winning-and-rebuilding-politics-from-the-ground-up/)

[5]      Conley, J., 11/6/20, “ ‘I mostly listen’: Offering blueprint for Democrats, Green New Deal champion Chloe Maxmin unseats powerful GOP incumbent in rural Maine,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/06/i-mostly-listen-offering-blueprint-democrats-green-new-deal-champion-chloe-maxmin)

[6]      McFadden, A., 11/4/20, “Maxmin topples Dow as Democrats keep majorities in Maine Legislature,” Maine Beacon (https://mainebeacon.com/maxmin-topples-dow-as-democrats-hold-onto-majorities-in-maine-legislature/)

[7]      Ballotpedia, retrieved 12/12/20, “2020 ballot measures,” (https://ballotpedia.org/2020_ballot_measures#Notable_topics_and_unique_measures_in_2020)

[8]      Covert, B., 10/21/20, “The pandemic sent Americans’ health care coverage into free fall,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/society/covid-healthcare-unemployment/)

[9]      Kuttner, R., 11/4/20, “The shadow election you didn’t see,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/shadow-election-you-didnt-see-voter-suppression/)

[10]     Editorial, 11/7/20, “Louis DeJoy must be investigated,” The Boston Globe

MONEY IN THE 2020 ELECTIONS

Our elections are, sadly, largely about money. The 2020 elections were the most expensive on record by a good margin; roughly $14 billion was spent on federal campaigns. This is over twice as much as the runner up, the 2016 election. The presidential race cost roughly $6.6 billion, a record, up from $2.4 billion in 2016. [1]

The big news is that nine of the ten most expensive U.S. Senate races of all time occurred in 2020. Those nine races cost close to $2.1 billion (so far) with North Carolina ($299 million) and South Carolina ($277 million) leading the way with Kentucky ($180 million) at the bottom of the top ten. Amazingly, these are not states with big populations and expensive advertising markets, which is where the expensive races often occur. The two Georgia Senate races, currently engaged in run-off elections, will almost certainly be in the top ten when the regular and run-off election spending is combined. Of the eight decided 2020 races, Republican incumbents won all of them except the Arizona race where Mark Kelly won the special election against Senator McSally, who had been appointed to replace Senator Kyl. [2]

The candidate who spends the most money typically wins, although this year “only” 72% of Senate candidates who spent the most won, which is a two-decade low. Notably, in very expensive races, incumbents who held onto their seats spent less than their challengers. This reflects the value of incumbency, but may also reflect that there is a saturation point for money, which is largely spent on advertising. At some point, the voters may get overwhelmed by the avalanche of advertising and more spending on more advertising may have diminishing or no benefit. Another unusual characteristic of the 2020 elections was that Democratic congressional candidates out-raised Republicans by $1.2 billion to $691 million. Nonetheless, Democrats lost seats in the House and made only slight gains in the Senate.

The amount of money spent by outside groups (i.e., not by the candidates themselves) set a record. More and more of this outside money is flowing through “dark money” groups that hide the identities of their donors.  Outside spending is theoretically independent of the candidates’ campaigns and therefore lacks any accountability for what is said and done. The top two Senate races for outside spending were North Carolina at $221 million and Iowa at $174 million.

On the other end of the spectrum, small individual donations ($200 or less) to federal candidates set a record at $1.8 billion. As-of mid-October, small donors had already contributed over three times as much as they did through election day in 2016. Their donations represent 27% of contributions to federal candidates (up from 21% in 2016) but still only 13% of total spending. This record giving probably results from the increased ease of contributing using on-line technology and the heightened focus on and polarization of national politics.

Out-of-state contributions to congressional candidates set records, increasing for both Democrats and Republicans in both House and Senate races. Notably, Democrats running for the Senate raised a record 80% of donations from out-of-state; Democratic candidates in Kentucky and South Carolina raised more than 90% of their money from out-of-state.

Campaign contributions by women set a record. Their giving to federal candidates was $1.4 billion or 41% of the total, up from $590 million and 36% in 2016. Their giving represented 45% of Democratic candidates’ fundraising and 33% for Republicans; both of which are records.

In summary, the bad news is that huge contributions are fueling incredible levels of campaign spending. It is important to reflect on who is contributing these huge amounts to candidates and outside groups, why are they doing it, and what they expect in return. People and organizations that give this kind of money don’t just throw their money away, they invest it and are looking for a return on investment. They are looking for policies that benefit them and their companies.

The good news is that contributions from small donors are increasing and can fuel a serious campaign even for our highest elected offices. Increasing participation by women is also good news. Nonetheless, the people who contribute at all to political campaigns are a very small fraction of voters.

A major transformation of our campaign finance system is needed if we want elected officials to be beholden to their constituents and not to wealthy campaign contributors; in other words, if we want democracy instead of plutocracy. Limits are needed on who can contribute (e.g., not corporations) and how much can be contributed – which will require a constitutional amendment given Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United. In the meantime, increased disclosure of campaign contributions is needed, in part to eliminate “dark money” so voters know who is spending money on a candidate’s campaign.

A campaign finance system that encourages and rewards small contributions to candidates is needed. Such a system would match small contributions with public money. This would allow and encourage a greater diversity of candidates to run for office.  It would also allow limitations on who and how much can be given to anyone who accepts the public funding. The ultimate result would be elected officials who are beholden to voters, not wealthy contributors, and a return to government of, by, and for the people, rather than a plutocracy where the wealthy rule and get favorable treatment from government.

 

[1]      OpenSecrets.org & Followthemoney.org, 11/19/20, “Unprecedented donations poured into 2020 state and federal races,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/11/2020-state-and-federal-races-nimp)

[2]      Miller, E., 12/9/20, “Nine of the 10 most expensive Senate races of all time happened in 2020,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/12/most-expensive-races-of-all-time-senate2020)

THE MOST EXPENSIVE ELECTION EVER

Our elections are, sadly, largely about money. Therefore, an election season can’t go by without a post about campaign spending.

The 2020 elections will be the most expensive on record by a good margin – over twice as expensive as the runner up, the 2016 election – and the amount of that money spent by outside groups (i.e., not by the candidates themselves) will also set a record. More and more of this outside money is flowing through entities that hide the identities of their donors.

It is projected that over $14 billion (yes, that’s billion) will be spent on the 2020 campaigns. Well over $2.5 billion of that total will be spent by outside groups, where candidates (supposedly) don’t control the spending or the message. This means there’s little or no accountability for the content and that the names of donors are often hidden. The spending by outside groups has skyrocketed since the 2010 Supreme Court decision called Citizens United that allowed these groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, including money from corporations. [1] Spending by these groups is roughly double what it was in 2016. Only 30% of outside spending is being done by groups that fully disclose their donors, which is a record low. [2]

The presidential race is projected to see a record $6.6 billion in spending, up from $2.4 billion in 2016. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden is setting fundraising records as he and Democratic Congressional candidates are, uncharacteristically, out-raising Republican candidates. After a slow start, Biden has raised $949 million, setting a monthly fundraising record recently – a stunning $282 million raised in September. $368 million of that total (39%) has come from small donors ($200 or less) with the remaining $581 million coming from big donors. President Trump has raised $594 million. His September amount was down significantly after having consistently raised about $100 million a month in 2020. $268 million of his total (45%) has come from small donors with the remaining $326 million coming from big donors. [3]

Races for the U.S. Senate are setting spending records as well. The North Carolina Senate race has already set the record for the most expensive congressional race ever with $265 million in spending by the candidates and outside groups. The Iowa Senate race is second with $218 million in spending. As-of mid-October, 2020 already has eight of the ten most expensive Senate races ever. [4] As has happened before, the highest profile races are raising high percentages of their funding from out-of-state, with races in Maine, Kentucky, and South Carolina receiving over 90% of their funding from out-of-state. [5]

A new wrinkle in this year’s campaigns has been the $1 billion spent on digital advertising. There are over 80,000 on-line political advertisers, which is four times the number of political committees registered with the Federal Elections Commission. The great bulk of this spending is, of course, going to Facebook and Google. [6]

Although more money than ever is coming from small donors ($200 or less), it still represents less than one-quarter of the money raised. More women are donating more money than ever before as well. Democrats have raised $1.7 billion in small donations and Republicans $1 billion. These small donors account for 22% of the money raised in 2020 compared to 15% in 2016. One and a half million women have donated to candidates for federal offices, accounting for 44% of donors and $2.5 billion by mid-October, up from 37% of donors and $1.3 billion for the whole election period in 2016.  Self-funding of campaigns by billionaires was also up, accounting for over 13% of total spending. Democrats Bloomberg and Steyer were responsible for much of this. [7]

Money skews our elections in many ways. First and foremost, the candidate with the most money usually wins. Second, the great majority of the money is contributed by a very small slice of the population. A big chunk of it is given by a very few, very wealthy donors who contribute huge sums. The top ten donors and their spouses have contributed over $642 million with almost all of it (98%) going to outside groups. This has been skewed toward supporting Republicans, although Democrats aren’t too far behind. Sheldon Adelson (a casino magnate) and his spouse set a new individual record with $183 million in donations, all to outside groups supporting Republicans. Business interests have given almost $4.6 billion through mid-October – 40% of total election contributions, compared to $3.6 billion for the whole 2016 election. Contributions from labor interests, on the other hand, are declining and have been only $175 million so far. [8]

The high cost of running a successful campaign, from President all the way down to state representative, skews our politics because it makes it necessary for almost all candidates to solicit large donations from wealthy individuals. (Senators Sanders and Warren have shown that it is possible to run competitive primary campaigns without the majority of campaign funding coming from wealthy donors, but they are the exceptions.) This skews candidates’ time and attention, both when running for office and when they are in office, toward these wealthy individuals rather than toward the needs and interests of the everyday Americans who are their constituents.

In addition, the high cost of campaigning skews our politics because people who can’t raise these large sums of money don’t even bother to run for office.

If we want democracy, where policies represent the needs and wishes of the majority of the population, if we want the government of, by, and for the people that our American democratic vision promised, we must reduce the amount of money it takes to run a successful campaign and dramatically curtail the influence of wealthy individuals and interests who have large sums of money they can spend on our elections.

In a future post, I will discuss the importance of overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and other possible steps for reforming campaign financing.

[1]      Evers-Hillstrom, K.., 10/19/20, “Outside spending surpasses $2 billion as super PACs hammer Trump,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/super-pacs-hammer-trump)

[2]      OpenSecrets.org, 10/28/20, “2020 election to cost $14 billion, blowing away spending records,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/cost-of-2020-election-14billion-update/)

[3]      Evers-Hillstrom, K.., 10/21/20, “Biden heads into final weeks with record cash advantage,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/biden-crushed-fundraising-september)

[4]      OpenSecrets.org, 10/28/20, see above

[5]      Geng, L., 10/22/20, “From South Carolina to Maine, out-of-state donors give big in Senate races,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/senate-races-outstate-donors)

[6]      OpenSecrets.org, 9/3/20, “OpenSecrets unveils new online ads database,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/09/opensecrets-unveils-new-online-ads-database/)

[7]      OpenSecrets.org, 10/28/20, see above

[8]      OpenSecrets.org, 10/28/20, see above

OUR ELECTIONS ARE RIGGED Part 2

Our elections are indeed rigged – by Republicans and the country’s wealthy capitalists to skew results to their benefit. One of their strategies is to reduce voting by those who are not part of their primary constituency of well-off, white voters. [1] My previous post describes the four main barriers to voting that states have been imposing. Studies show they disproportionately disenfranchise non-white, low-income, student, and/or elderly voters, groups who tend to vote for Democrats:

  • Imposing voter identification requirements
  • Reducing places and times for voting
  • Purging eligible voters from voter registration lists
  • Denying people with a felony conviction the right to vote

There are a variety of strategies that are being used to suppress voter participation in general and participation by likely Democratic voters in particular, in addition to the four above. In some states, Republican gerrymandering of state legislative districts has given Republicans undeserved power to enact barriers to voting. In Wisconsin, for example, in 2018, Democrats won a majority of the statewide vote for the state legislature (52%) but got only 36 of 99 seats in the legislature (36%).

Voter suppression strategies being used in various places across the country include:

  • Impeding voter registration: While some states are making it easier to register to vote, for example through election day registration and automatic voter registration at motor vehicle offices and other state agencies, many Republican-controlled states are making it harder to register. For example, some states have made the process for conducting voter registration drives so onerous that the effect has been to ban them. In Georgia, in 2018, the Secretary of State (who oversees elections and was a white male running against a Black woman for Governor) was charged with blocking the registration of 50,000 voters (80% of whom were non-white) due to minor discrepancies in the spelling or spacing of their names. [2]
  • Failing to update voter registration systems with address changes: Without up-to-date addresses for people who move frequently, e.g., young people, students, and low-income workers, these voters (who tend to vote for Democrats) do not receive ballots or voting information, and hence are less able and likely to vote.
  • Undermining confidence in our elections: Spreading lies about the existence of voter fraud and the validity and honesty of our elections creates skepticism about the importance of voting. Failure to combat foreign efforts to affect the outcome of our elections and to undermine faith in their credibility also damages voters’ enthusiasm for voting. Calling ballots that are counted after election day fraudulent (for example, mailed-in ballots that were postmarked on time) contributes to the false perception that our elections are dishonest. All of these techniques and other related ones undermine voters’ motivation to turnout to vote.
  • Providing misinformation about voting and registering to vote: This is a classic “dirty trick” used to confuse voters and keep them from registering to vote and from voting.
  • Creating barriers to or doubts about mail-in or absentee ballots: The President and some Republican-led states are erecting barriers to mail-in voting because it has been shown to increase voter participation, which does not work to their benefit. In addition, the President, in particular, is trying to sow doubt about the validity and effectiveness of mail-in voting despite its very successful use in many states, including as the sole method of voting in Oregon since 1998. Some states are making it complicated to correctly complete a mail ballot. In Alabama, for example, the signature on an absentee ballot must have two witnesses or a notarization. [3] A complicated process increases the likelihood that ballots can be disqualified due to a technical error in completing them and most states do not have a process for remedying a minor technical error; the ballot is simply not counted. Some states are setting strict deadlines for receipt of mail ballots (e.g., they must be received by election day not just postmarked by election day). In one county in Florida, 1,200 ballots were not counted for being too late despite being postmarked on time. And, as I imagine you’ve heard, the Trump administration is working to harm the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to process mail in a timely fashion. Finally, some states prohibit the opening of mail ballots until election day or even until the polls have closed. This delays the finalization of election results and gives Republicans the opportunity to assert that the late counting of ballots is indicative of fraud, as they did in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.
  • Intimidating voters: In Pennsylvania, the Republicans have sued all 67 counties to allow Republican-hired, outside “poll watchers” at the polls. Poll watchers such as these have typically been used to harass, challenge, and intimidate targeted voters, namely those who are likely to be voting for Democrats. They do this by, for example, demanding proof of eligibility to vote. They are typically deployed in low-income, non-white neighborhoods and sometimes wear uniforms and carry badges, cameras, and guns. This kind of intimidation was so bad back in 1982 that a federal judge imposed restrictions on activities that might intimidate voters. However, in 2018, with the Trump campaign’s support, these restrictions were lifted. [4]
  • Refusing to give workers time to vote: In most states, election day is not a holiday and most employers do not give workers time off (let alone paid time off) to vote, although this may be starting to change.
  • Negative campaigning: Negative messages and nasty campaigning create disillusionment with candidates (whether the information is true or not) and with voting in general. The result is lower voting participation both in general and for the targeted candidate.

Republicans have amassed a $20 million fund to bring lawsuits aimed at reducing voting and blocking the counting of ballots, such as provisional ballots cast by people whose voter registration was purged or blocked by voter suppression techniques. In Florida, for example, Republicans have sued to prevent postage-paid return envelopes from being sent with mail-in ballots, hoping to reduce the rate at which they are returned. In Nevada, they have sued to prevent the state from sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters.

President Lyndon Johnson called voting “the first duty of democracy”. However, President Trump and Republicans in Congress and in the states have been doing everything they can to denigrate that duty and to make it as hard as possible for those likely to vote for Democrats to fulfill their duty to vote. [5] This is stunningly unpatriotic and in violation of our Constitution and the founding principles of this country. Democracy’s foundational principle is that all citizens have a right and duty to vote. Undermining the ability to vote and the importance of voting are antithetical to democracy.

There are steps we can take to increase voter participation and, thereby, improve the health of our democracy. Steps to make it easy to vote and to block strategies inhibiting voting are occurring in the courts and in some states. The battle over allowing voting by those convicted of felonies in Florida has gone through three levels of courts already and is on-going, although it appears likely that 775,000 of them will not be able to vote this fall. In Virginia, where Democrats gained control of the state government in the 2019 election, they have repealed the state’s voter ID law, made election day a state holiday, expanded the early voting period to 45 days, and implemented automatic voter registration for people using services from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Mail-in ballots will have pre-paid postage and drop boxes for returning them will be installed throughout the state. Voters will be able to fix technical errors on mail-in ballots, while absentee ballots will no longer require a witness’s signature. [6] In North Carolina, a Democratic Governor, a state Board of Elections with a non-partisan leader, and court orders have reversed the tide in a state that was one of the leaders in voter suppression in 2016. [7]

The ultimate solution is a national one, namely reinstituting the protections that were in place under the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court disingenuously eviscerated it in 2013. To this end, I encourage you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and let them know you support the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which passed the House in December 2019 but has not been acted on by the Senate. In addition, our election systems need extra financial support to operate safely, effectively, and accurately during the current pandemic. To this end, I also urge you to let your Members of Congress know you support the VoteSafe Act and the funding for election systems in the House-passed HEROES Act. [8] Given that the Republicans in control of the Senate are not likely to act on these bills this year, in the meantime, encourage your state and local election officials to make it as easy as possible for all eligible voters to register and vote.

To live up to our principles, every citizen needs to be readily able to fulfill that first duty of democracy – to vote.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Hightower, J., 9/1/20, “Six ways the Right is shredding the right to vote,” Common Dreams from The Hightower Lowdown (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/09/01/six-ways-right-shredding-vote)

[2]      Durkin, E., 10/19/18, “GOP candidate improperly purged 340,000 from Georgia voter rolls, investigation claims,” The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/oct/19/georgia-governor-race-voter-suppression-brian-kemp)

[3]      Bidgood, J., 9/20/20, “Alabama: ‘They’re doing everything to stop us from voting’,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Hightower, J., 9/1/20, see above

[5]      Graham, R., 9/14/20, “Vote!” The Boston Globe

[6]      Gibson, B., 9/14/20, “How Virginia made voting easier and fairer,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/how-virginia-made-voting-easier-and-fairer/)

[7]      Kuttner, R., 9/16/20, “Election night could be smoother for Senate races,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/election-night-could-be-smoother-for-senate-races/)

[8]      Fudge, M., 9/21/20, “The struggle to vote continues,” The Boston Globe

OUR ELECTIONS ARE RIGGED

Our elections are indeed rigged, but not in the direction or way President Trump claims. For decades now, Republicans and the country’s wealthy capitalists have been working to skew election results to their benefit by reducing voter participation. As Republican campaign strategist Paul Weyrich said in 1980, “I don’t want everybody to vote. … Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” [1]

Low participation in elections works to the advantage of corporations, wealthy individuals, and Republicans. They know that their constituency – white, well-off voters – will continue to vote but that others can be prevented or discouraged from voting by barriers to voting and by spreading doubts about candidates and our elections.

Since the 1980s, Republicans and their wealthy donors have engaged in an escalating, coordinated, well-funded, multi-pronged effort to prevent targeted people from voting and to suppress voting in general. It now seems that no holds are barred; serious distortions of candidates’ positions, beliefs, and experiences and blatant lies are commonplace. One prong of their effort was getting “conservative” judges appointed to courts at all levels including the U.S. Supreme Court. This culminated in the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013 that key portions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) were unconstitutional because discriminatory voting practices were (supposedly) no longer a significant issue. This was essential to the escalation of Republicans’ targeted voter suppression efforts.

The states have proved the Supreme Court wrong; every one of the nine states that had been subject to Voting Rights Act oversight (which occurs because of past discriminatory practices) has implemented new discriminatory barriers to voting. All told, over half of the 50 states have enacted hundreds of barriers to voting in the seven years since the Supreme Court’s decision, some literally within days of the decision.

The four main barriers to voting that states have imposed are:

  • Implementing voter identification laws: Eleven states had strict voter ID laws in 2016, where without the required ID a vote will not be counted unless the voter quickly takes the steps required to validate the provisional ballot they are allowed to cast. These strict voter ID laws first appeared in 2006. In 2000, only 14 states had any ID requirement and all of them allowed a voter to cast a ballot that would be counted through a relatively simple, on-the-spot process. By 2016, 33 states had an ID requirement. [2] For example, in Alabama, a state that had been subject to VRA oversight, a strict voter ID requirement was enacted the year after the Supreme Court’s decision. Motor vehicle offices were where most people would go to get the required photo ID. However, soon after enactment of the voter ID requirement many of these offices in predominantly Black communities were closed, although some of them were later reopened. [3] In Iowa, a very strict voter ID law was enacted in 2017, which it is estimated will keep 260,000 people from voting this fall. Studies have shown that voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise non-white, low-income, and elderly voters. There is no evidence of voter fraud, however, it is, nonetheless, given as the rationale for voter ID laws. Moreover, voter ID requirements would NOT prevent the kind of voter fraud Republicans claim is happening. [4]
  • Reducing places and times for voting: A number of states have reduced the number of polling places. The nine states subject to the Voting Rights Act before its evisceration by the Supreme Court in 2013 have closed 1,688 polling places, typically in areas with high proportions of Black voters. Some states have reduced the number of days of early voting and Alabama, for example, does not allow early voting.
  • Purging eligible voters: While election officials do need to clean up voting registration lists (e.g., to remove people who’ve died or moved out of the jurisdiction), Republicans have turned the updating of voting lists into a technique for purging likely Democratic voters. Nationally, an unusually high number of voters (17 million) have been removed from voting lists since the 2016 election. The purges often target people who move frequently (e.g., young people, students, low-income workers, and non-white voters). These groups also happen to tend to vote Democratic. Often a postcard is mailed to the targeted voters (but not forwarded) and if it isn’t returned, they are removed from the voting rolls. Sometimes voters who haven’t voted in a couple of elections are summarily removed from voting lists. Georgia, for example, purged more than 534,000 voters from its voting rolls in 2016 and 2017. However, a study found that 340,000 of them were valid voters, predominantly non-white, and still living at the addresses on their voter registration information. [5]
  • Denying people with a felony conviction the right to vote: Forty-eight states deny those convicted of a felony the right to vote while they are incarcerated. Eleven states deny them the right to vote even after they have completed their sentences (including any probation or parole), although there typically is, in theory, a process for regaining their voting rights. [6] These laws denying voting rights reflect the racism of Jim Crow laws, where whites were looking for ways they could legally keep Blacks from voting (among other things). Laws were written and selectively enforced so that Black males were convicted of felonies at a high rate and therefore prevented from voting. (Women couldn’t vote at that time.) In 2016, there were over 4.7 million citizens out of prison but disenfranchised by their criminal record. One-third of them are Black. [7] In recent years, there has been a trend toward reinstating their right to vote often with some conditions. For example, in Florida in 2018, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question to repeal the law preventing those who had been convicted of a felony from voting after completing their sentences (except for those convicted of murder or a sex crime). However, the Republican Governor and legislature have gone out of their way to thwart the will of the people. As it currently stands, those who have completed their sentences, now also have to pay all restitution, fines, fees, and court costs before they are allowed to vote. This is effectively a new kind of poll tax and will keep an estimated 775,000 people, who are predominantly Black men, from voting this fall.

My next post will cover some of the secondary techniques for suppressing voting and steps we can take to increase voter participation and, thereby, the health of our democracy.

[1]      Hightower, J., 9/1/20, “Six ways the Right is shredding the right to vote,” Common Dreams from The Hightower Lowdown (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/09/01/six-ways-right-shredding-vote)

[2]      National Conference of State Legislatures, retrieved 9/20/20, “History of voter ID,” (https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/voter-id-history.aspx)

[3]      Bidgood, J., 9/20/20, “Alabama: ‘They’re doing everything to stop us from voting’,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Gibson, B., 9/14/20, “How Virginia made voting easier and fairer,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/how-virginia-made-voting-easier-and-fairer/)

[5]      Durkin, E., 10/19/18, “GOP candidate improperly purged 340,000 from Georgia voter rolls, investigation claims,” The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/oct/19/georgia-governor-race-voter-suppression-brian-kemp)

[6]      National Conference of State Legislatures, retrieved 9/21/20, “Felon voting rights,” (https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx)

[7]      Wood, E., 2016, “Florida: An outlier in denying voting rights,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Florida_Voting_Rights_Outlier.pdf)

EXAMPLES OF CONTINUAL CORRUPT CORPORATE BEHAVIOR

Here are three recent examples of corrupt corporate behavior. They show the breadth of the corruption – the leveraging of undeserved power and wealth – from corrupting government policy making to exacerbating economic inequality to corruptly maximizing profits.

U.S. Representative Richie Neal (Democrat of Massachusetts) received $54,000 in a two-month period from lobbyists for corporations with a financial stake in his actions that blocked meaningful control of health care costs. In December 2019, a bipartisan, House and Senate compromise on controlling health care costs was all set to pass as part of a larger appropriations bill. Among other things, the Lower Health Care Costs Act would have eliminated exorbitant surprise medical bills for out-of-network services by limiting their cost to that of equivalent in-network services. It also would have required pharmaceutical firms to disclose information related to increases in drug prices. [1]

Three days after the Lower Health Care Costs Act was finalized and on track to become law, Neal, Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, undermined it and got it dropped from the larger appropriations bill that was destined to pass into law. He did this by announcing that he and his Republican counterpart would draft a counterproposal, although no details were presented.

On February 7, 2020, less than two months later, Neal released his alternative bill. Key provisions of the Lower Health Care Costs Act had been eliminated or weakened. For example, rather than eliminating surprise medical bills, it included a weak substitute: voluntary negotiations and arbitration. The previous requirement for disclosures relevant to drug price increases was eliminated. In the two-month window from Neal’s blocking of the original bill to the release of his own much weaker bill, he collected $54,000 in donations from 12 lobbyists who worked for clients opposed to the original Lower Health Care Costs Act. These 12 donations represented two-thirds of his campaign contributions in the first quarter of 2020.

If this isn’t corruption, I don’t know what is. It appalls me that this is a legal and accepted campaign fundraising pattern. Clearly, we need to strengthen our campaign finance laws.

On a different front, a report from the Economic Policy Institute [2] found that in 2019 average pay was $21 million for Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) at the 350 largest corporations in the U.S. This is up 14% from the year before and 1,167% since 1978, while a typical worker’s pay has grown by only 14% since 1978. In other words, each $1.00 of a worker’s pay grew to $1.14 over those 40 years while each $1.00 of a CEO’s pay grew to $12.67. The ratio of CEO pay to the average worker’s pay is now 320 to 1, having grown dramatically from 61 to 1 in 1989 and 21 to 1 in 1965.

Skyrocketing CEO pay is a significant contributor to economic inequality, which continues to rise to unprecedented levels. The economy would not be harmed in the slightest if CEOs were paid less and/or taxed more.

There are many policy changes that would address excessive CEO pay if policy makers had the will to enact them, including:

  • The income tax rate on high incomes could be increased to previous levels (which in the 1970s were roughly double current rates),
  • Corporate tax rates could be increase for firms with high CEO-to-worker pay ratios, and
  • A vote by shareholders could be required annually to approve CEO pay.

And then there’s the pharmaceutical industry that continually engages in corrupt corporate behavior, which displays its greed, market power, and lack of concern for stakeholders other than shareholders and executives. Two recent examples are summarized below.

First, Teva Pharmaceuticals is being sued by the federal government for illegally funneling $300 million through two charitable foundations to support the price and sales of its multiple-sclerosis drug, Copaxone. The Justice Departments suit claims the company used the foundations to insulate some patients from big price increases in order to prop up the excessive price of Copaxone for others. From 2007 to 2015, Copaxone’s price more than quadrupled from roughly $17,000 per year to over $73,000. [3]

In addition, in January 2020, Teva had paid a $54 million settlement for bribing doctors with fraudulent “speaking fees” to prescribe Copaxone and other drugs it makes.

Second, Gilead Sciences announced recently that it will charge patients with private insurance $3,120 for the five-day course of treatment with the experimental COVID-19 drug remdesivir. Some government programs may get a lower price and other developed countries will pay about 75% of the U.S. price. Reaction to the price has been mixed with some advocates and members of Congress saying Gilead is taking advantage of Americans during a pandemic. Taxpayers have invested about $100 million in the drug and some feel it should be public owned and not in private hands as a result. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recently purchased 500,000 treatment courses, three months’ worth of Gilead’s production, for an estimated $1.5 billion. DHHS will distribute the drug to hospitals around the country. [4]

Clearly, the U.S. needs stronger regulation of pharmaceutical firms, including disclosures relevant to drug pricing (like those in the Lower Health Care Cost Act). We also need to allow and empower Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate drug prices paid to pharmaceutical corporations, as the U.S. Veterans’ Administration, private insurers, and other countries do.

[1]      Shaw, D., 5/5/20, “Neal took big bucks from lobbyists while killing a surprise medical bill fix,” Sludge (https://readsludge.com/2020/05/05/neal-took-big-bucks-from-lobbyists-while-killing-a-surprise-medical-bills-fix/)

[2]      Mishel, L., & Kandra, J., 8/18/20, “CEO compensation surged 14% in 2019 to $21.3 million,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/publication/ceo-compensation-surged-14-in-2019-to-21-3-million-ceos-now-earn-320-times-as-much-as-a-typical-worker/)

[3]      Bloomberg News, 8/19/20, “Talking points: Pharmaceuticals,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Lupkin, S., 6/29/20, ”Remdesivir priced at more than $3,100 for a course of treatment,” National Public Radio (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/06/29/884648842/remdesivir-priced-at-more-than-3-100-for-a-course-of-treatment)

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S SWAMP OF CORRUPTION

President Trump campaigned on a promise to drain the Washington, D.C., swamp of special interests and insider dealing. This is one promise he clearly hasn’t kept – and probably never meant – although it was good rhetoric for the campaign because many of his potential supporters wanted to hear this. They were working and middle-class people who wanted to see the federal government turned upside down because they had lost their economic security to:

  • Trade deals that sent their jobs overseas,
  • Anti-union policies that made it impossible for them to strike or to organize, so their wages stagnated and their overall compensation (including benefits) declined,
  • Financial policies that let already wealthy executives and stockholders capture the benefits of increased productivity of workers,
  • A health care system that increased their costs while decreasing coverage,
  • A retirement system that either abandoned them or shifted investment risk onto their shoulders, and
  • A government that repeatedly bailed out the financial industry, reduced taxes on huge corporations, and allowed leveraged buyouts and bankruptcies that cut jobs and eliminated retirement benefits.

While these policies were benefiting wealthy corporations and individuals, blue collar and middle-class workers lost their jobs, had mortgages foreclosed on, and saw their credit card balances and their children’s student debt skyrocket. (See this previous post for more detail.)

The American Prospect magazine has begun mapping the Trump Swamp of conflicts of interest and unethical behavior agency by agency. [1] They have created an interactive map of Washington where you can click on an agency’s headquarters building and get highlights of the swamp of corruption at each agency.

The level of corruption – of special interests running our government for their own benefit and the outright self-enrichment by individuals in the Trump administration – is stunning. Much of this flies beneath the radar of all the bluster, lies, and shocking policy proposals the Trump administration throws out daily. It relies on misdirection delivered through words to distract attention from corrupt actions. Our mainstream media is just too focused on the theater of Trump and his minions, and too overwhelmed to report everything that’s being done. And the American public is too distracted – having had its attention diverted from the real action just as a magician does – and too overwhelmed to take it all in.

The personal self-dealing of President Trump is appalling even before one considers what’s going on in executive branch agencies. For example, foreign diplomats and domestic lobbyists are paying untold sums of money to stay in Trump hotels and at Trump resorts. This money is functionally a bribe, buying access, attention, often face-time, and sometimes outright rewards. The President has spent one out of every three days at one of his resorts, giving the resorts free advertising and revenue from the lodging and other expenses of his Secret Service detail and his retinue. The Secret Service, for example, in protecting the President as he golfs, has spent over $500,000 on golf carts alone.

Family members have benefited, too. Perhaps most notably, Ivanka Trump got rare and valuable trademarks from China the same day she dined with China’s leader. Trump’s spokesperson also touted Ivanka’s products in official TV interviews.

In another example of what’s functionally bribery, two large private prison corporations, GEO Group and CoreCivic, after hundreds of thousands of dollars of political spending, have received over $3 billion in payments for their services from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a unit of the federal Department of Homeland Security. Together, they run 41 detention centers that house more than half of ICE detainees. They’re providing these services because the Trump administration has reversed the phaseout of the use of private prisons that was occurring under the Obama administration. The phaseout was happening because of a series of scandals at private prisons including deaths, high suicide rates, substandard medical care, and other malfeasance. (See previous posts here and here for more detail.)

This dramatic reversal of policy by the Trump administration didn’t happen by accident; it happened because of a concerted effort by the private prison corporations through campaign contributions and use of the revolving door. GEO-associated executives and entities gave at least $675,000 to Trump’s campaign and inauguration and other Republican campaigns. GEO hired two former aides to Sen. Sessions, the new Attorney General, as lobbyists. When AG Sessions formally reversed the Obama administration’s phaseout of the use of private prisons, GEO stock had already doubled in value and CoreCivic’s stock was up 140%. As a thank you, the private prison industry gave another $1 million to the Trump campaign. [2]

Payday lenders also functionally bribed the Trump administration to get a reprieve from Obama administration policies, which were working to protect borrowers from usurious fees and interest rates (sometimes over 100% a year when annualized). The payday lending industry donated over $2.2 million to Trump’s campaign and inauguration. The CEO of one large payday lending chain told his peers that the money would buy access to top administration officials and the chair of the Republican National Committee, who could get them an audience with the President.

The change in payday lending oversight policy was facilitated by Trump’s appointment of his top budget official, Mick Mulvaney, to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The appointment process was probably illegal, but the White House Office of Legal Counsel said it was okay in a memo written by a lawyer who had been the lead attorney for a payday lender fighting CFPB regulations. The CFPB dropped that enforcement action after Mulvaney took over.

Trump’s personal corruption is mind boggling, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. The overarching economic philosophy and purpose of the Trump administration has been to handover government regulation and policy making to large corporations, while sending as much as possible of government spending and program operation to them as well in an unprecedented spurt of privatization. As a result, there are numerous issue areas where policies that are widely supported by the public and are clearly in the public interest go nowhere as the corrupt influence of wealthy corporations and individuals blocks them. Instead, policies are often enacted that benefit the self-interests of wealthy corporations and individuals.

Beyond bad policies – ones that are uninformed and dangerous to public health, safety, and well-being – the Trump administration has made no effort to stop its bureaucrats, from Cabinet members on down, from enriching themselves from their work as government employees.

I urge you to visit The American Prospect’s interactive map of Washington and to click on one or more agency’s headquarters building to review highlights of the swamp of corruption at that agency.

In my next post, I will highlight some of the corrupt individuals in the Trump administration and their corrupt actions. I’ll also ask you to contact your elected officials to ask them to crack down on this corruption.

[1]      Lardner, J., 4/9/20, “Mapping corruption: Donald Trump’s executive branch,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/mapping-corruption-donald-trump-executive-branch/)

[2]      Lardner, J., 4/9/20, see above

REMEDIES FOR THREATS TO OUR ELECTIONS

My previous post highlighted threats to our election and voting systems. There are remedies for these threats, including the new and exacerbated ones due to the corona virus pandemic.

Surprisingly, there are lessons about cybersecurity that we should learn from Estonia. As a former state within the Soviet Union, it has decades of experience with Russian propaganda. It also has over a decade of experience dealing with Russian cyberattacks. In 2007, Russian hackers executed the first politically motivated cyberattack against a nation, bringing down much of Estonia’s Internet. They disabled government, newspaper, and bank websites. In response, Estonia built a Cyber Defense League based on a small staff and budget ($300,000) and a network of hundreds of volunteers. The volunteers do public education and plan simulated cyberattacks to test the government’s response. Estonia also has an ambassador at-large for cyber diplomacy and a federal Information System Authority that includes a cyber emergency response team. [1]

Estonia’s national government offers free cybersecurity trainings and screenings to candidates and political parties. In the lead-up to each election, it holds a hackathon where security experts try to break into the country’s election systems. Any vulnerabilities and the steps taken to fix them are publicly reported. The State Electoral Office has a working group that meets daily during elections to monitor the media and identify disinformation campaigns.

When Estonia joined NATO in 2004, it proposed hosting a center for cyber defense. Initially, NATO members were cool to the idea, but after Russia’s attack on Estonia in 2007, NATO agreed to create the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence housed in Tallinn, Estonia. It now hosts the largest cyber defense exercise in the world with over 1,200 participants from nearly 30 countries. In April 2019, the exercise’s scenario involved a coordinated cyberattack during a national election that affected vital services and also sought to manipulate public perception of the election results.

Estonia has become the model for countries working to counter Russian (and other) electronic meddling. It has developed cybersecurity expertise and a secure on-line voting system (over 40% of Estonians vote on-line). It requires high school students to take a 35-hour course on media and manipulation.

A key underlying element of Estonia’s preparedness for election meddling is broad public understanding that cybersecurity requires eternal vigilance, a sense of urgency, and a unity of purpose that leads to coordination among public agencies and private entities. These elements have, unfortunately, been lacking in the U.S. due to the lack of urgency from the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress about meddling in our elections.

To address cybersecurity and the other threats to our elections, and to ensure that everyone can vote safely and securely the U.S. needs to do the following: [2]

  • Establish an overarching national strategy on election security that coordinates efforts by governments, the private sector, academia, and the public,
  • Replace paperless voting machines with ones that have a paper backup and audit trail,
  • Expand alternative voting opportunities such as early voting and mail-in voting,
  • Enhance the ease of voter registration (e.g., on-line and same day registration) and the security of voter registration databases,
  • Provide federal funding to states to enhance voting systems and election-related security,
  • Increase oversight of and security requirements for vendors of voting systems,
  • Establish national standards for voting machines, registration databases, and voting procedures (e.g., post-election audits to verify the accuracy of results) to ensure that every eligible voter can vote safely and securely, and
  • Enhance the monitoring and response to misinformation and foreign attempts to influence our elections.

I urge you to contact your state election agency, often the Secretary of State, as well as your local, state, and national elected officials to encourage them to enhance the security and user-friendliness of our voting and election systems and procedures.

We need to make it as easy and as secure as possible for every citizen to vote!

[1]      Bryant, C. C., 2/4/20, “Cybersecurity 2020: What Estonia knows about thwarting Russians,” The Christian Science Monitor (https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2020/0204/Cybersecurity-2020-What-Estonia-knows-about-thwarting-Russians)

[2]      Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 3/20/20, “Defend our elections,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/defend-our-elections)

HEIGHTENED THREATS TO OUR ELECTIONS

Our election and voting systems were facing serious challenges before the corona virus pandemic hit; it has added new challenges and exacerbated old ones. Although the final federal election isn’t until November, state and local elections are occurring (or getting postponed) now, including primaries for the federal election.

The need to postpone elections or adjust procedures for them due to the pandemic highlight the need for effective voter communication and the threat of misinformation. Voters need to know about changes in the date of an election or the location of a polling place, e.g. to move it out of a senior living facility. Voters also need to know about changes in voting procedures such as expansions of early voting and absentee / mail-in voting.

Changes in election dates and procedures provide fertile ground for misinformation that could suppress voting or manipulate it for partisan or other purposes. The pandemic also provides opportunities for divisive misinformation aimed at stirring up social unrest and manipulating election outcomes. Such misinformation can also be used to undermine trust in government and our elections. [1]

One election strategy for addressing the challenge of keeping a safe social distance from others to limit the spread of the virus would be to conduct as much voting as possible by mail. For state or localities that have the capacity, mail-in ballots could be sent to every registered voter. In other places, absentee voting could be expanded to include anyone who would prefer to vote by mail. The options for requesting an absentee ballot should be expanded to include mail, on-line or email, phone, and in-person requests.

Before the corona virus hit, our voting systems and elections were vulnerable to operational glitches and ill-intentioned manipulation. Most states use electronic voting systems that are at least a decade old and prone to malfunction. Their software is old and doesn’t have up-to-date protections from hacking. Many states have voter registration databases that are similarly antiquated and vulnerable to hacking. Finally, poor design of ballots in some states leads to voter confusion and errors in voting. [2]

Issues with our voting and election systems are of particular concern given Russian cyber attacks on the 2016 U.S. election. Russian hackers probed election networks in all 50 states, breached at least one state voter registration database, attacked local election boards, got into at least two Florida counties’ computer networks, and infected the computers at a voting technology company. Russians hacked into the Clinton campaign’s email system and two units of the Democratic National Committee, stealing hundreds of thousands of documents and emails. These purloined documents then were leaked at multiple times, frequently when the timing had particular benefit for the Trump campaign. [3]

In addition, Russian entities engaged in extensive election-related misinformation campaigns in 2016. Probably most notably, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian government-linked organization, reached over 100 million Americans via social media using a budget of over $1 million a month. Through 470 Facebook accounts and 3,814 Twitter accounts, the IRA reached over 127 million people.

The goal of the Russian social media campaign was to sow political discord in the U.S. and to build doubts about American democracy by undermining trust in our political institutions, including the validity of our elections. It used hot-button topics such as race, immigration, and religion to inflame political polarization and heighten fear and confusion. Russia seeks to undermine and delegitimize Western democracies in general, both to boost its own international prestige and to discourage democratic aspirations at home. It hopes to exacerbate divisions within the U.S. and also to fracture NATO and other international alliances.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election led to the indictment of 25 Russian individuals and three Russian organizations. They had infiltrated individual, public, and private computers and networks, including voting lists and banking systems.

Although a federal information clearinghouse for election infrastructure has been created and $380 million was provided to states for election security, most cyber experts believe our election infrastructure is quite vulnerable. In January 2019, the U.S. Director of National Security warned that Russia was looking at opportunities to advance its interests in our 2020 elections and that it would use social media to weaken our democratic institutions, influence U.S. policies, and undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships.

My next post will outline steps we should take to ensure the accessibility and security of voting for all citizens.

[1]      Weiser, W. R., & Feldman, M., 3/16/20, “How to protect the 2020 vote from the coronavirus,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/policy-solutions/how-protect-2020-vote-coronavirus)

[2]      Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 3/20/20, “Election security,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/defend-our-elections/election-security)

[3]      Bryant, C. C., 5/14/19, “Amid growing concerns about 2020, a primer on Russian election interference,” The Christian Science Monitor (https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2019/0514/Amid-growing-concerns-about-2020-a-primer-on-Russian-election-interference)

THE LEGACY OF WARREN’S RUN FOR PRESIDENT

As a policy wonk and someone who believes governments have an important role to play in addressing issues in our economy and society, I’m disappointed to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren drop out of the Democratic presidential race. Her highlighting of the work we need to do on social and economic justice will have a lasting legacy.

Warren has more clearly and specifically laid out a progressive vision for this country than anyone since President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She spelled out not only what that vision looked like but how to achieve it. She focused attention on the role of government, who it is supposed to work for in a democracy, and how those with wealth and power have undermined the basic principles and promise of our democracy. [1]

The detailed roadmap Warren put forth of how to solve problems in our society and economy, and to return to government of, by, and for the people will, fortunately, long outlive her presidential campaign. In February 2019, she put forth the first of her numerous plans to address our problems with a proposal to make affordable, high quality child care available for all children under school age. And she put forth her proposal for a wealth tax on ultra-millionaires as the way to pay for it and a number of her other plans.

Warren next presented a plan to break up and regulate the Big Tech corporations that are engaging in monopolistic practices and abusing the personal information they gather from all of us. She followed this up with a proposal to reverse decades of racist housing policies implemented by governments at all levels along with private sector lenders and the real estate industry. She followed up with plans to tackle the cost of higher education and student debt, a detailed plan to pay for health care for all, and policies to lessen the influence of big corporations and wealthy individuals in our policy making process.

Warren’s meticulous policy proposals set the agenda for the Democratic race for the presidential nomination. Hopefully, they will set the agenda for the final presidential race and future policy debates in Congress and governments at all levels.

Her proposals and arguments on the campaign trail hammered home the message that America’s problems are not inevitable but are the results of choices reflected in government policies. Warren highlighted how these decisions have been driven by the power of wealthy individuals and corporations, and how they have put their profits, power, and personal gain ahead of the common good.

Warren’s abilities as a storyteller made our problems and her solutions resonate with many Americans, as she wove her personal life story and America’s history into a clear, understandable, and persuasive narrative.

In keeping with her message that government needs to better serve the broad public, she raised the majority of her campaign’s $92 million (which, sadly, is necessary to run a competitive campaign these days) from small donors giving $200 or less. She refused to hold big ticket fundraisers where attendees make contributions in the thousands of dollars. She received more than half of her fundraising total from women, which is highly unusual if not unprecedented. This all demonstrated, as Sen. Sanders has as well, that a viable presidential campaign can be run without relying on large sums of money from wealthy individuals (who have vested, special interests). [2]

Warren has changed the way many Americans view our society and economy. Many people have learned about a wealth tax and the racial wealth gap for the first time, for example.

I believe she has changed the course of our country. Only time will tell how quickly and extensively her vision will affect the policies of our governments and the characteristics of our economy and society.

[1]      Voght, K., 3/5/20, “What Elizabeth Warren taught us,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/03/what-elizabeth-warren-taught-us/)

[2]      Hasan, I., & Monnay, T., 3/5/20, “Low on cash and delegates, Warren ends her White House bid,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/03/warren-ends-her-bid/)

BIG MONEY IS ALREADY PLAYING A BIG ROLE IN THE 2020 CAMPAIGN

Big money is already pouring into the 2020 election campaigns. The spending by wealthy individuals and corporations continues to grow. Federal candidates have already raised $2.2 billion (yes, Billion) with $1.6 billion of that belonging to the presidential candidates.

Here’s a quick summary of what the major presidential candidates and (supposedly) independent outside groups have spent so far (with 264 days to go!): [1]

  • Bloomberg: $464 million (self-funded, not accepting any contributions)
  • Steyer: $271 million
  • Trump: $218 million plus $35 million of outside money
  • Sanders: $133 million plus $  4 million of outside money
  • Warren: $  92 million plus $33 million of outside money
  • Buttigieg: $  81 million
  • Biden: $  68 million plus $  8 million of outside money
  • Klobuchar: $  34 million
  • Gabbard: $  14 million
  • Weld: $    2 million

Bloomberg is spending roughly $6 million a day of his own money on his presidential campaign. The bulk of his spending, roughly $400 million so far, has gone to advertising on TV, radio, and digital media. He is paying higher compensation to campaign staff than other campaigns in order, in numerous cases, to steal them away from other campaigns. [2] He is literally trying to buy the presidency with his personal fortune.

The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited spending in election campaigns by (supposedly) independent, outside groups and wealthy individuals continues to exacerbate the role of money in our elections. The securities and investment industry, for example, continues to increase its campaign spending and was the top industry donor to outside groups in each of the last four election cycles. Since 2012, the industry has spent more than $80 million in each two-year federal election cycle, over $320 million in total. Before the Citizens United decision, it never spent more than $18 million in an election cycle. [3]

Much of the campaign spending by corporations and their industry associations is done through Political Action Committees (PACs). Business PACs have already contributed $179 million to federal candidates and parties in the 2020 election cycle. Business PACs account for 73% of PAC contributions, dwarfing the spending by unions and issue-focused groups. Although the contributions themselves must be made by employees, shareholders, and their family members, the business can pay for all the PAC’s expenses and provide incentives to donors for giving to the PAC. The corporation’s direct spending on PAC expenses does not have to be disclosed. Business interests couple their dominant PAC spending with dominant spending on lobbying to give them great influence in policy making. They target specific candidates, often incumbents, who will be in influential policy making positions (e.g., on committees) relevant to their interests. [4]

PACs are supposedly independent of candidates’ campaigns, but they often share office space, staff, and other resources with candidates, House or Senate leaders, or the political parties. [5]

The amount of “dark money” in campaigns is growing, which means voters know less about who’s spending money to influence their votes. (“Dark money” is money that is laundered through non-profit entities that supposedly don’t have political spending as their main purpose and therefore do not have to disclose who their donors are.) In 2019, $65 million in “dark money” has flowed into PAC spending on 2020 election campaigns. In the 2018 election cycle, $176 million in “dark money” was given to PACs. The total for the 2020 election cycle is all but certain to be higher.

A recent report from the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that campaign finance laws and enforcement capabilities have not kept up with the issues presented by “dark money,” unlimited spending, and on-line political spending. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) doesn’t have clear standards on what constitutes political activity in non-profit entities or the extent to which non-profit entities can engage in political activity. Furthermore, it is not reviewing donor lists or sharing them with other federal law enforcement agencies for review. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is non-functional due to partisan deadlock, the President’s failure to appoint Commissioners, and under-funding. As a result, for example, the flow of illegal foreign money into our elections through “dark money” channels is not being monitored and no enforcement is occurring. [6]

One often overlooked effect of our money-driven elections is that people of color and their interests are severely underrepresented by elected officials. Ninety percent of elected officials are white, while only 63% of the population is white. The great majority of campaign money at the federal and state levels comes from less than 1% of the population who make donations of over $1,000. The bulk of these donors come from the richest 1% of the population, which is over 90% white. Money is, of course, crucial to election campaigns, with the candidate with more money winning about 90% of the time. The record spending on campaigns, especially by wealthy individuals and corporations unleashed by the Citizens United decision, has exacerbated the political marginalization of people of color. Wealth and political power have been increasingly consolidated in the hands of a very small, very white portion of the population. The bottom line is that people of color are underrepresented among elected officials, among candidates for office, among donors to campaigns, and as having their interests reflected in policies that are enacted. [7]

Given the obscene amounts of money being spent on election campaigns, voters who wish to make good decisions on candidates must now spend more time and effort to wade through the barrage of self-serving ads, misinformation, and noise to ferret out good and truthful information about candidates. If our democracy is to work, this requires all of us to pay more attention and spend more time researching candidates before we make our voting decisions. Voters will need to be consciously skeptical, so they are less swayed by paid media and slick messaging.

Ultimately, we need to change our campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money and make it easier for voters to discern candidates’ positions on issues. But until that happens, to be informed voters, we will have to wade through the barrage of political advertising and messaging to discern between quality from quantity and differentiate truth from half-truth or outright fiction.

[1]      OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 2/23/20, “2020 presidential race,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/2020-presidential-race)

[2]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., 2/20/20, “Michael Bloomberg is spending nearly $6 million per day on campaign,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/02/bloomberg-spent-6-million-per-day/)

[3]      Monnay, T., 1/23/20, “Wall Street donor influence shows unprecedented growth 10 years after Citizens United,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/01/wall-street-donor-influence-growth-10-years-citizens-united/

[4]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., 2/14/20, “Why corporate PACs have an advantage,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/02/why-corporate-pacs-have-an-advantage/)

[5]      Massoglia, A., 2/7/20, “ ‘Dark money’ groups steering millions to super PACs in 2020 elections,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/02/dark-money-steers-millions-to-super-pacs-2020/)

[6]      Massoglia, A., 2/7/20, see above

[7]      Lioz, A., 12/14/19, “Stacked deck: How racial bias in our big money political system undermines our democracy and our economy,” Demos (https://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/StackedDeck2_1.pdf)

ON-GOING RUSSIAN ELECTION INTERFERENCE MUST BE STOPPED

Since the release of the Mueller report, the focus has been on obstruction of justice by and possible impeachment of President Trump. The report’s documentation of Russian election interference has gotten little attention. Concomitantly, there has been little attention to the need to protect our future elections from on-going Russian meddling.

Based on the Mueller team’s finding of “sweeping and systematic” interference by Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign, it indicted 25 Russians. Russian operatives used every major social media platform, and used them extensively, to spread false information, exacerbate social divisions, and influence the election.

The Mueller report spells out in detail the blatant and illegal efforts by Russia to affect the 2016 presidential election specifically to benefit Donald Trump and to undermine Hillary Clinton. It presents substantial evidence “that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the [Trump] Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” [1] [2]

Highlights from a much longer list of events related to Russian interference in the election include the following: [3]

  • September 2015: The FBI warns the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that at least one of its computers has been hacked by Russians.
  • June 2016: The Washington Post and others report that hackers working for the Russian government have stolen DNC emails and other information. Wikileaks announces that it has Clinton and DNC emails and documents. It begins publishing them in July.
  • July 2016: Russian intelligence agency hackers target Hillary Clinton’s home office.
  • October 2016: The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of National Intelligence on Election Security officially state that the U.S. intelligence community is “confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions” and are behind the releases of stolen documents by Wikileaks and DCLeaks. DCLeaks is later identified as a front for Russian military intelligence.
  • Late November and December 2016: Various media outlets report that the CIA has determined that Russia’s goal in interfering with the election wasn’t just to undermine confidence in the election and the U.S. government, but was also to support Trump and hurt Clinton. They also report that this intelligence has been shared with Congress.
  • Late December 2016: President Obama issues an executive order naming six Russians who took part in the presidential election hacking and imposing sanctions on Russia.
  • June 2017: A Department of Homeland Security official testifies before the Senate that hackers linked to the Russian government targeted voting systems in up to 21 states and compromised at least one email account at an American voting machine company. Although no evidence of effects on vote counting were found, voter information may have been accessed.
  • July 2018: The Justice Department, as part of Mueller’s investigation, indicts 12 members of Russian intelligence for persistent efforts to hack emails and computer networks associated with the Democratic Party.
  • September 2018: Facebook announces that more than 3,000 ads posted between June 2015 and May 2017 had undisclosed links to Russia. CNN reports that these ads targeted voters in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states Trump won narrowly and that were key to his victory.

In January 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued an Intelligence Community Assessment entitled, “Assessing Russian activities and intentions in recent US elections.” [4] It states that it is a “declassified version of a highly classified assessment; its conclusions are identical to those in the highly classified assessment.” It concludes that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was the most recent example of Russia’s longstanding efforts to undermine US democracy but represented a significant escalation of their efforts.

It finds with “high confidence” that Russian President Putin ordered the efforts with goals of aiding Trump and hurting Clinton. It also concludes with “high confidence” that Russian military intelligence was behind the release of hacked information. It states that “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. … We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts.” (p. iii)

The Trump campaign was happy to accept the help of the Russians, apparently without actively conspiring (i.e., colluding) with them. It nonetheless engaged in a variety of contacts with Russian agents and did not report offers of help from them to the FBI or others. Members of the Trump campaign and family, including the President himself, lied to the FBI and others on multiple occasions about their contacts with Russians.

To respond to the evidence of on-going Russian attempts to influence our elections, the House and the Senate should continue the investigation and identify remedies. Based on their findings, they should formulate legislation and allocate resources to ensure the integrity of our future elections.

One would think that any American president and any Members of Congress, regardless of party or ideology, would support a thorough investigation of Russian interference to determine how to block future threats to our elections, and ultimately our national sovereignty and security. The Republican-controlled Senate and the formerly Republican-controlled House have refused to do so. The Republicans in Congress have abandoned their oath of office and American democracy in the interests of their re-election and political power.

President Trump, as the Mueller report spells out in detail, has repeatedly tried to terminate, limit, or impede the investigation of Russian interference in our elections. Trump’s actions make it clear that his concern is not for American democracy, but reflects three things: [5]

  • Acknowledgement of Russian meddling on his behalf undermines the credibility of his election in 2016,
  • On-going Russian efforts benefit his presidency, and
  • Russia’s activities improve his likelihood of re-election in 2020.

Former President Ronald Reagan, who branded Russia the “evil empire” and worked assiduously to win the Cold War with Russia, must be turning over in his grave to see his Republican party failing to protect America’s elections from Russian interference.

Despite President Trump’s resistance to an investigation, the FBI, intelligence agencies, and the Department of Homeland Security have made their task forces on election interference permanent. The FBI recently moved 40 agents and analysts to its Foreign Influence Task Force. [6] However, without leadership from the President, and the cross-agency coordination and support that would provide, the efforts by these agencies will be less effective.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and your Senators and urge them to take action to protect our elections from meddling by Russia or other foreign actors.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Cole, D., 4/23/19, “An indictment in all but name,” The New York Review of Books (https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/05/23/robert-mueller-report-trump-indictment/)

[2]      Mueller, R. S., III, May 2019, “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election,” U.S. Department of Justice (www.justice.gov/storage/report.pdf)

[3]      CNN, 4/18/19, “2016 presidential campaign hacking fast facts,” CNN Library

[4]      Office of the Director of National Intelligence, January 2017, “Intelligence Community Assessment: Assessing Russian activities and intentions in recent US elections,” (https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3719492/Read-the-declassified-report-on-Russian.pdf)

[5]      Cole, D., 4/23/19, see above

[6]      Barnes, J. E., & Goldman, A., 4/26/19, “F.B.I. warns of Russian interference in 2020 race and boosts counterintelligence operations,” The New York Times

RACISM ON THE SUPREME COURT?

On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 5 to 4 decision, that key provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) were unconstitutional. The case was formally known as Shelby County, Alabama v. Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority (which included Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito) that “Our country has changed” and claimed that it had done so so dramatically since the initial passage of the VRA in 1965 that the VRA was now not only unneeded but unconstitutional.

This decision was shocking to many, in part because the Act had been reauthorized in 2006 by overwhelming majorities in Congress and signed into law without controversy by President George W. Bush. The Congressional vote, with Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate, was 390 to 33 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate in favor of reauthorizing, i.e., extending, the Voting Rights Act.

The over 15,000 pages of evidence compiled by Congress in its review of the VRA in 2006 indicated that it was still badly needed. The Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a conservative, noted that evidence had been “assembled to show the need for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act” and that it documented “the extensive record of continued abuse” of voting rights. [1]

This extensive evidence clearly established that the country hadn’t changed much since the VRA’s enactment in 1965 with respect to efforts to impede voting by Blacks in some areas, particularly the South. It documented relentless efforts in some states to counter the effects of the VRA. The on-going nature of these efforts was confirmed by actions taken almost immediately after the Court’s ruling overturning the VRA. (See some specifics below.)

The Supreme Court in effect ruled that Congress had acted irrationally in 2006 in reauthorizing the VRA. Chief Justice Roberts’ and his colleagues’ decision was based on their version of reality, which was in contradiction to the evidence amassed by Congress. Roberts probably wouldn’t have been persuaded by any evidence, given that he had worked zealously in 1981, when he was at the Justice Department, to roll back the protections of the VRA.

At best, the Court’s decision was a failure of empathy or a triumph of ideology, but more likely it reflected racism.

Justice Scalia, in the oral arguments leading to the decision, described the VRA as being a “perpetuation of racial entitlement” and stated that he didn’t believe any legislator would vote to end such an entitlement once society had adopted it. Therefore, it was up to the Court to declare it unconstitutional, because this was the only way to end this racial entitlement. [2] Why the right to vote, which is a core principle of our democracy, would be considered a “racial entitlement” is hard to understand except from the perspective of racism.

The irony here, of course, is that the racial entitlement that exists in U.S. society is the entitlement of Whites. For most of the two hundred years of its existence, there were all White elected officials, police forces, corporate executives, judges and juries, as well as schools, colleges, and teachers, to list a few examples. And while our country has begun to change in this regard, there still is a long way to go to achieve anything close to equity.

What occurred after the elimination of the protections of the VRA has made it clear how virulent efforts to suppress voting, particularly of Blacks, are today. Within two hours after the Supreme Court issued its decision on the VRA, Texas took steps to reinstitute its strict photo ID law, which had previously been struck down by a federal court. The day after the decision, North Carolina amended a pending bill to make its voter ID law stricter and added other provisions eliminating or restricting opportunities to vote that targeted minority voters. Changes in voting procedures in other states, which had previously been blocked by the federal government under the VRA, were quickly implemented.

After years of litigation, federal courts have forced the reversal of the actions of Texas and North Carolina because their changes in voting laws were found to be intentionally racially discriminatory. However, in the intervening years, the discriminatory provisions were in effect. Overall, federal courts have now ruled that at least 10 of the new, state restrictions on voting were illegal.

In the five years since the Supreme Court’s overturning of the VRA, nearly 1,000 polling places have been closed, many of them in predominantly Black areas. Access to early voting has been cut, voters have been purged from the lists of eligible voters, and requirements to show a voter ID or provide proof of citizenship have been implemented. [3] Nine states had been subject on a statewide basis to VRA oversight of changes in voting procedures (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia). In every one of them at least one of the above five impediments to voting has been implemented (the average was 2.3 impediments). Eight of the 9 moved or eliminated polling places and 8 of 9 implemented new voter ID requirements. Four of these impediments to voting were implemented in each of two other states, where only parts of the states had been subject to the VRA (Florida and North Carolina).

Clearly, the Supreme Court majority was in error when they concluded that the country had changed and the protections of the VRA were not only no longer needed, but had risen to the level of being unconstitutional oversight of states’ elections by the federal government. Given that the Court is extremely unlikely to reverse itself, it is up to Congress to pass a new VRA that will fill the gaps in the protection of voting rights created by the Court’s decision.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators to ask them to support a new Voting Rights Act. Our democracy should be encouraging and supporting voting by all eligible voters, and not allowing states or local jurisdictions to implement impediments to voting – especially when those impediments have disproportionate effects on Black Americans.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Fountain, B., 2018, Beautiful Country Burn Again, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, NY. Quotations from page 406.

[2]      Fountain, B., 2018, see above. Quotation from page 409.

[3]      U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2018, “An assessment of minority voting rights access in the U.S.: 2018 statutory report.” (https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/2018/Minority_Voting_Access_2018.pdf)

ELECTION AND ETHICS REFORM

With Democrats taking over control of the U.S. House in January, there’s a wide range of issues they might tackle. Even if many of the bills they propose, and hopefully pass, don’t become law (because they aren’t passed by the Senate or are vetoed by President Trump), they will frame the debate going forward and into the 2020 elections. Furthermore, policies can become law by attaching bills or provisions to must-pass bills such as those funding the government. This is a tactic that has been used for many, many years and has been used frequently by Republicans over the last 12 years. Talking about substantive issues will shift the discussion to ideas from personalities and to meaningful, long-term policies to address important problems rather than short-term, idiosyncratic, one-off deal making.

Two key topics will be the focus of the first bill in the new House in January. They were the first two topics on my previous post’s list of possible issues for House Democrats to address. They are:

  • Elections: stop voter suppression, encourage voting, stop gerrymandering, and reform campaign financing (e.g., limit contributions, provide matching public funds, and require full disclosure of spending and donors)
  • Ethics: address conflicts of interest for Congress and all federal workers; stop the undue influence of special interests obtained through lobbying, the revolving door, and campaign expenditures

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the current leader of the House Democrats (and likely Speaker of the House come January), has stated that the first bill in the new House in January, known as H.R. 1, will address the restoration of democratic principles and procedures. It will address election and integrity issues where government of, by, and for the people has been undermined by wealthy individuals and corporations. The overall goal of the bill will be to end the ability of special interests to bend public policies to their benefit and against the interests of hard-working Americans and our democracy. This will restore Congress’s and the federal government’s abilities to enact policies that address the problems of average Americans. This is essential to renew the public’s faith in our democracy. [1]

Pelosi’s bill would do many of the things President Trump promised to do during his campaign when he stated he would “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. His actions and appointments have done nothing to drain the swamp and have probably made things worse.

This bill will address the huge amounts of money in our elections and the significant portion of that money that is “dark money” – money where the identity and interests of the true donor are hidden. The bill would require all organizations making donations to or expenditures on campaigns to disclose who their donors are. [2]

The proposed legislation would also take steps to increase the impact and number of small-dollar campaign donors. Incentives would be provided for individuals to make small campaign donations and the impact of those donations would be multiplied by matching them with public funds. Candidates who agree to accept these matching funds would have to limit the size of donations they accept and, perhaps, their overall spending.

The Pelosi bill would re-establish the Voting Rights Act’s protections of every citizen’s right to vote and would stop voter suppression. It would make it easier to vote through automatic and on-line voter registration while strengthening election infrastructure to prevent hacking and ensure accurate, auditable, tabulations of votes. To ensure that everyone’s vote has a fair chance of being meaningful, it would end gerrymandering, probably by requiring that an independent redistricting commission in each state draw congressional district boundaries.

The bill would strengthen ethics and conflict of interest laws governing Congress and federal government workers. It would ban members of Congress from serving on the boards of for-profit companies, which presents a clear conflict of interest. It would also enhance disclosure of who’s lobbying the federal government, so these efforts would be publicly known and not hidden in the shadows. And it would require Presidents to disclose their tax returns.

Pelosi’s bill would implement a code of ethics for Supreme Court Justices, who are currently exempt from the code of ethics that applies to other federal judges. [3]

It would close the revolving door of personnel between government positions and private sector jobs, which creates major conflicts of interest and is a major avenue for undue influence by special interests. It would prohibit employers from giving bonuses to reward employees for moving into public sector positions (as Wall St. has done repeatedly in the past). These individuals often go back to the same private sector employers later. The bonuses present the individuals with a significant conflict of interest from day one in their public sector job, particularly if the bonus is being paid out over time and, therefore, is being received when they are in their public sector role.

Tackling elections and ethics reform as a top priority makes sense for several reasons. First, these issues are very much on voters’ minds. Voters passed several ballot measures addressing them at the state and local levels in November, as was summarized in a previous blog post. Publicity about voting and ethical scandals in the Georgia election, as well as in Florida and North Carolina, have heightened the public’s awareness and concern about these issues. [4] In addition, candidates who refused corporate and PAC money fared very well in November. Noting incumbents’ acceptance of special interest money and linking it to specific votes was an effective tactic for beating them. [5]

Second, over the longer-term, addressing elections and ethics issues is critical to restoring democratic decision-making to government by ending the undue influence of wealthy individuals and corporations. This is essential to making progress on every other issue that would advance the public good. A fairer political process, where government is truly of, by, and for the people, is necessary to eliminate the system-rigging power of wealthy individuals and corporations. This will actually drain the Washington swamp. [6] Restoring faith in the fairness and integrity of our elections and policy making is a necessary first step toward restoring trust in our government.

If Democrats are willing to commit to a new code of conduct and to stand up for true democracy, they could reap the benefits of the current backlash against corrupt behavior by elected officials and the overall corruption of our political processes. There’s an opportunity to lead on re-establishing fairness and integrity in our politics. Some Democrats will resist this, fearing the loss of campaign donations and spending by wealthy individuals and corporations, but not doing so will risk losing a tremendous opportunity, both politically and for the good of our democracy.

I encourage you to communicate with your elected officials at the national and state levels about these issues. Nothing is more likely to persuade them than hearing from constituents who care about fair and ethical elections and behavior by government officials. I welcome your comments and feedback on steps you feel are needed to make our elections and policy making fairer and more responsive to regular Americans.

Thank you for your feedback on the list of topics in my previous post. In upcoming posts, I will delve into infrastructure investment and environmental policy issues since these were the two topics that were most frequently identified as priorities.

[1]      Pelosi, N., & Sarbanes, J., 11/25/18, “The Democratic majority’s first order of business: Restore democracy,” The Washington Post

[2]      Wertheimer, F., 10/10/18, “House Democratic challengers demand campaign-finance reforms,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/house-democratic-challengers-demand-campaign-finance-reforms)

[3]      Mascaro, L., 12/1/18, “House Democrats’ bill seeks reforms,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[4]      Carney, E. N., 11/29/18, “Read it and weep: Georgia lawsuit paints stark portrait of voter suppression,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/read-it-and-weep-georgia-lawsuit-paints-stark-portrait-voter-suppression)

[5]      Lardner, J., 11/30/18, “What the Democrats must do first,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/what-democrats-must-do-first)

[6]      Lardner, J., 11/30/18, see above

BALLOT MEASURES IN THE 2018 ELECTIONS

For a variety of reasons, but often because the established policy-making process has been unresponsive to citizens’ desires, proposed laws are put on election ballots for direct voter approval. This occurs both at the state and the local levels. In 2018, there were many such ballot measures on a great variety of topics from election reforms to energy and financial regulations to health care and financial matters to ethics and criminal justice issues to marijuana legalization to abortion and government administrative issues.

In the 2018 election, voters in 37 states decided 155 statewide ballot measures. Of those where a final result is available, 107 were approved and 47 were defeated. Of the 64 citizen-initiated measures, 32 were approved and 32 were defeated, for a 50% approval rate. For the 89 ballot measures initiated by legislative action or a commission, about 82 percent were approved. [1]

A number of these ballot measures addressed issues related to elections. To reduce gerrymandering, four states’ voters approved ballot initiatives that establish independent redistricting commissions to draw lines for congressional and state legislative districts after the 2020 Census. In Missouri, voters approved the establishment of the first ever state demographer position and enacted some unique competitiveness and partisan fairness criteria for state legislative districts. Ohio voters approved a ballot measure back in June that created a new redistricting system requiring super-majority, bi-partisan votes to approve new congressional districts. [2]

Automatic voter registration was approved through ballot measures in two states and two states’ voters approved same day registration. In Florida, a ballot measure passed that will restore voting rights to roughly 1.4 million citizens who have completed their sentences for felony convictions. Six states and more than a dozen local jurisdictions passed ballot measures strengthening ethics laws, requiring greater disclosure of campaign contributions, or regulating money in politics. [3] On the downside for access to voting, two states approved ballot measures establishing voter ID requirements.

Voters in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah approved ballot measures expanding Medicaid eligibility, a state option under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Some Republican Governors and legislatures have opposed this expansion of Medicaid simply because it was part of Obamacare, even though it was very low cost to the states and would have provided health insurance to tens of thousands of low-income residents. A ballot measure to extend Montana’s Medicaid expansion beyond June 2019 failed, although the legislature and Governor could still extend it. Recreational marijuana sales were legalized in Michigan and Missouri but defeated in North Dakota, while medical marijuana was approved in Utah.

Some of these ballot measure had large amounts of money spent on campaigns for and against them. In general, state laws do not restrict spending on ballot questions, so where corporate interests are at issue, corporations often spend large amounts of money on ballot measure campaigns. For example, a California ballot measure to limit dialysis clinic’s revenue had over $130 million spent on it, of which $110 million was spent in opposition to the measure, which failed. A California local rent control measure had over $100 million spent on it, three-quarters in opposition, and it failed. An energy market-related measure in Nevada had almost $100 million spent on it, with two-thirds in opposition, and it failed. In Arizona, an energy market-related measure with over $50 million in spending failed with 57% spent in opposition.

Among the 10 ballot measures in 2018 with the most spending (all had over $30 million in spending), the side spending more money won in every case.

So, although the results varied, there were a number of distinctly progressive ballot measures that were approved as part of the 2018 election. In several cases, they were approved by margins of over 60% even when the state’s partisan candidates’ races were very close. This was true, for example, for Florida’s restoration of voting rights to those with felony convictions and in Michigan for voting and redistricting reform.

In my next post, I will share some thoughts on policy issues that should be high on the House Democrats’ agenda when they take over control in January.

[1]      Ballotpedia, retrieved 11/23/18, “2018 election analysis: Notable ballot measure results,” (https://ballotpedia.org/2018_election_analysis:_Notable_Ballot_Measure_Results)

[2]      Rapoport, M., 11/9/18, “Tuesday’s verdict on voter suppression and gerrymandering,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/tuesday%E2%80%99s-verdict-on-voter-suppression-and-gerrymandering)

[3]      Weiser, W., & Weiner, D. I., 11/9/18, “Voters are hungry for democracy reform,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/blog/voters-are-hungry-democracy-reform)

THE TRUE STORY OF THE 2018 ELECTION

The dominant narrative of the 2018 election from our mainstream (corporate) media had congealed even before the polls on the west coast had closed. As it turns out, their narrative was wrong.

The narrative goes something like this: there was no blue wave for Democrats; Trump and the Republicans won the election. Furthermore, there was no progressive shift among voters, because even where Democrats won, it was moderates who won; progressive Democrats, like Beto O’Rourke in Texas, lost.

In an attempt to correct the narrative and provide updates on the many races that were not determined by the end of election night coverage, CNN did a novel thing: it held a night of programming a full week after the election that it called “Election Night in America Continued.”

Because of the expansion of mail-in ballots, absentee voting, and early voting, as well as the new use of ranked choice voting in Maine and some very close races, final results have taken longer to tabulate than in the past. A week and a half after the election, two US Senate seats are still up in the air (Florida and Mississippi), as are seven US House seats and two governorships (Florida and Georgia). [1]

The inaccurate story of Democrats losing the election was based on early results from the east coast. Democrats lost a US House seat in Kentucky that had received a lot of attention only because of a scrappy fight in a long-shot race by a woman combat veteran with some advertising that went viral on social media. Democrats also lost a high-visibility US Senate race in Indiana early in the evening. Close races for Governor in Georgia and Florida, and a close Senate race in Florida, all of which are still counting votes but which some pundits prematurely called Republican wins, fueled the Democrats-are-losing story.

Beto O’Rourke’s close loss in the Texas US Senate race, which had received so much attention only because it was so amazing that this race was anywhere near close in deep red Texas, cemented the narrative that the Democrats were losing.

The premature claims of Republican wins are now being used to fuel Republicans’ and Trump’s demand that vote counting stop with claims that these elections are being “stolen.” These false claims are dangerous as they undermine voters’ faith in our democracy and in our voting systems, as well as the commitment to accurately count every vote.

However, as more votes are counted and more results are finalized, especially from the west coast, the blue wave for Democrats is becoming clearer and larger. The Democrats flipped at least 38 seats in the US House. They will have at least 30 more seats than the Republicans. In the US Senate, the Democrats were defending ten seats in states that Trump won but lost only three of them. Meanwhile, Democrats won two Senate seats from Republicans (Arizona and Nevada). [2]

Furthermore, without the gerrymandering and voter suppression done by Republicans, Democrats would likely have won at least a dozen more seats in the US House. For example, in North Carolina, Democratic candidates for the US House got 50% of the overall vote, but only 3 out of 13 seats. With fairly drawn districts, the Democrats would have gotten 3 or 4 more seats in North Carolina alone.

With votes still being counted, it seems certain that in the overall popular vote for US House candidates, Democrats will have at least 7% more votes than Republicans. This would make the 2018 blue wave bigger than the Republicans’ waves in 2010 (President Obama’s first mid-term election) and in 1994 (President Clinton’s first mid-term election). [3]

The mainstream (corporate) media and others who fear a resurgence of progressive values and policies (such as universal health insurance, a $15 minimum wage, and free public higher education) have inaccurately characterized the Democrats’ successes as coming from moderates. They claim that where Democrats ran progressive candidates, they lost. However, to make this argument, they have had to define as moderates many candidates who support progressive policies. [4] For example, of the 60 new incoming Democratic House members, 45 have publicly supported expanding Medicare (including 20 who support Medicare for All), 42 have publicly supported increasing the minimum wage, 49 support campaign finance reform, 48 support reducing prescription drug prices, and 41 support unions.

Overall, 65% of new House members support expanding Medicare or Social Security, while 82% rejected corporate PAC money for their campaigns and / or support campaign finance reform. (Even before the election, the House’s Expand Social Security Caucus had 150 members and the Medicare for All Caucus had over 70 members.) [5]

The Democratic blue wave was also clearly present in state election results. Democrats picked up at least seven governorships (with Florida and Georgia still undecided), three Attorneys General, 50 state Senate seats, and 200 state House seats. There are now 14 states where Democrats hold the governorship and control of both houses of the legislature, up from 8. Republicans hold similar control in 21 states, down from 26. In fourteen states, the parties share control of state government. [6]

Even in deep red Texas, where O’Rourke lost the US Senate race, Democrats picked up two US House seats, two state Senate seats, 11 seats in the state House, and four appeals court judges. In addition, a slate of 17 black women was swept into offices in Harris County. [7]

So, although Democrats and progressives did not win everything they tried for, there was a strong blue wave for Democrats and it had a strong progressive tint to it.

In my next posts, I will provide an overview of the results of the many ballot initiatives that were voted on and then share some thoughts on policy changes that should be high on the House Democrats’ agenda.

[1]      Ballotpedia, retrieved 11/15/128, “Election results, 2018,” https://ballotpedia.org/Election_results,_2018

[2]      Walsh, J., 11/13/18, “Yes, there was a big blue wave last week,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/midterm-elections-democrats-left/)

[3]      Yglesias, M., 11/13/18, “Democrats’ blue wave was much larger than early takes suggested,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/11/13/18082490/blue-wave)

[4]      Walsh, J., 11/13/18, see above

[5]      Green, A., 11/15/18, “The midterms prove it: Progressive ideas are now mainstream,” The Washington Post

[6]      Ballotpedia, see above

[7]      Yglesias, M., 11/13/18, see above

WHY WE NEED A POLITICAL REVOLUTION

Bill Moyers – one of the most savvy and respected commentators on US politics and society over the last 40+ years – just published an interview with the author of a book Moyers describes as the best political book of the year. [1] The author is Ben Fountain and the book is Beautiful Country Burn Again.

Fountain, an acclaimed novelist, was hired by The Guardian (a respected British daily newspaper with a US edition) to cover the 2016 US presidential race. His reflections on and analysis of the current US political environment are poignant and very relevant to this fall’s election.

Fountain found that millions of Americans are experiencing significant confusion, frustration, and anger. Working and middle-class people are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet and, therefore, are feeling more and more beleaguered. Their financial and psychological security has been undermined by the shredding of the social contract of the 1950s – 1970s, which promised that if they worked hard and played by the rules, they would have a secure middle class life. They are working harder than ever but, nonetheless, are falling further behind in their efforts to have a decent life, provide for their children, and have a secure retirement. Meanwhile, they see the wealthy doing better and better, getting richer and richer.

Fountain states that this is “not a situation that can be sustained long-term in a genuine democracy.” (p. 3 of the interview transcript). The tremendous increase in the inequality in income and wealth over the last 40 years has led many Americans to have a “basic, pervasive sense that the system is not fair.” (p. 4) Given this legitimate sense of grievance among the millions living economically precarious lives, the declaration by candidate Trump, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and others that “The system is rigged” resonated strongly.

These beleaguered, aggrieved Americans are resentful and looking for an explanation for why they are experiencing such hard times. This makes them vulnerable to false narratives and scapegoating from politicians. This resentment is exacerbated by the fact that for many white Americans their position of power and privilege has been (rightfully) challenged over the last 50 years. The uncomfortable truths of the racism of America have presented “a challenge to some people’s identity and sense of personal integrity.” (p. 4)

Trump was a master at playing on this resentment, vulnerability, and discomfort. He gave many white Americans “psychological, emotional affirmation as an antidote for all the anxiety, all the resentment they’d been feeling.” (p. 5) Despite the obvious contradictions of Trump’s wealth, New York background, and anti-worker business practices, he provided easy-to-digest explanations and solutions for beleaguered white, working people (especially men). Fountain describes this as the “classic con man dynamic” that shows “how easily we’re taken in when we’re hearing what we want to hear … [which has] more to do with emotion and raw attraction than anything that might be called rational thought.” (p. 7)

Fountain says that the gullibility of the American public is in part due to what he calls the “Fantasy Industrial Complex.” The public believes in the possibility of the fantasy lifestyle we see in the advertisements and commercial propaganda that bombard us day and night from our screens in movies, TV, celebrity news, and social media. The cumulative effect is that this “numbs us out and dumbs us down.” (p. 8) As a result, “it takes a supreme effort of will on the individual’s part to distinguish advertising and propaganda from facts,” (p. 8) lies from truth, and fantasy from reality.

Fountain states that both of our political parties have lost their way. Trump, with the help and acquiescence of many others, has taken the Republican Party’s “politics of paranoia and racism, cultural resentment, xenophobia, misogyny and all the rest” to new extremes. The Democrats, during the 1990s with leadership from the Clintons, maintained their commitment to civil rights and diversity, including based on sexual orientation, but abandoned their commitment to workers, the poor, and Main Street for financial support from Wall Street and the wealthy. They stopped making the case for the important roles of government in maintaining a safety net and regulating business and the economy. As a result, the economic security of working and middle-class people collapsed, while income and wealth inequality skyrocketed.

The political power of the wealthy has been super-charged by changes in laws governing the financing of our political campaigns. Unlimited amounts of money can now be spent on campaigns and the sources of much of it may be kept secret. Without wealth, everyday citizens are left speechless in our elections and, therefore, underrepresented in the halls of government. The big campaign spenders have unprecedented access to and influence on policy makers, resulting in policy outcomes they favor and that benefit them further.

Democracy is overwhelmed by the hyper-capitalism in the US today with its great concentrations of wealth and power, both in our economy and in our political system and government. This is the result of the deregulation of business and the economy over the last 40 years, which has been supported by both political parties. The big corporations and the capitalists will overreach if they are unregulated and unrestrained. The 2008 crash demonstrated this again, as the savings and loan crash of the 1980s had, along with the dot com bubble crash and the crash that led to the Great Depression. Today, the system is indeed rigged, and the result is plutocracy – where the wealthy elites rule.

The American identity, and the exceptionalism of the US that the right-wing asserts, are based on democracy and the foundational principles of equality and representative government that is responsive to all the people. This is not the America we have today. Citizens can’t be equal with corporate CEOs and wealthy investors if they can’t earn enough to support a family and don’t have time to devote to public civic and political responsibilities, often because they are working multiple jobs or long hours.

Fountain concludes that “corporate power and concentrations of wealth have such a hold over our economic system that for the country to wrest some of that power from them, it can’t be incremental. It will take a political revolution.” (p. 12) The New Deal, responding to the 1929 financial crash and the Great Depression, was, in fact, a bloodless political revolution. It saved capitalism from itself, building the regulatory infrastructure that we relied on with great success for 50 years. It also built the physical infrastructure of sewers and water mains, parks, libraries, public buildings, the power grid, and many of the roads and bridges that we rely on to this day. We take all this largely for granted today, forgetting about the trauma that triggered it and the public sector response that turned the country around and built the foundation for the future.

Fountain notes that the American commitment to and understanding of the importance of public civic, political, and physical infrastructure “has been stunted the last 40 years by a very aggressive sales program on behalf of free-market fundamentalism and hard-core capitalism.” (p. 13) The subtitle of his book, Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution, highlights his belief that we need a political revolution to save our democracy – and to save capitalism from itself.

You can be part of the political revolution:

  • By being an informed voter in this fall’s election, and
  • By encouraging and helping everyone you know to also be an informed voter this fall.

As I’ve written about previously, voter participation in the US is dismally low and higher voter turnout will produce different election and policy results. This is how the political revolution must happen.

[1]      Moyers, B., 10/12/18, “The bold bravery of ‘Beautiful Country Burn Again’”, Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/10/12/bold-bravery-beautiful-country-burn-again)

OUR DEMOCRACY NEEDS MORE VOTERS

The United States has very low rates of participation in our “democracy,” which is perhaps most dramatically evident in our very low voter turnout. In our last presidential election – a very visible and hotly contested race – only a bit over one-half (roughly 56%) of those eligible voted. In the upcoming 2018 elections for Congress and state offices, it is likely that only a bit over one-third of those eligible will vote.

This low voter participation is not healthy for a democracy and is inconsistent with our democratic ideals and principles of government of, by, and for the people. Worldwide, most other democracies have higher voter participation; Belgium leads among the 34 advanced democracies at 87% with the US’s 56% in 27th place. [1]

Our voting system, with most voting procedures determined by the states, does little to encourage voter participation. For example, voting on Tuesdays, a work day, has never been convenient for working people. Moving election day to a weekend or making it a holiday would make voting more convenient and almost certainly increase participation. The voter registration rules set by the states have historically set deadlines to register to vote well before election day and required residents to appear in a government office to register, neither of which encourages voting.

In the 2016 presidential election, voter participation varied among the states from 74% in Minnesota and 71% in New Hampshire and Maine, to 42% in Hawaii and 50% in West Virginia. [2] Some states have encouraged voter participation by allowing early and expanded absentee voting, as well as same-day registration.

Many states are putting hurdles in front of potential voters rather than encouraging participation. In most cases, these efforts to restrict or discourage voting have political motivations, usually to reduce voting by groups that tend to vote for Democrats. Some states have reduced early or absentee voting. Some have reduced the number of voting locations, making it more difficult for some voters to get to the polls or resulting in waiting lines to vote, sometimes waits of over an hour.

Thirteen states have imposed more restrictive identification requirements for voting since 2010, typically requiring voters to produce a government-issued ID. It is estimated that 21 million eligible voters do not have a such an ID. So, in the states that require them, voting becomes much more difficult, requiring these potential voters to obtain a government ID in advance of the election. This and other policies that suppress voting are profoundly anti-democratic and have no valid, non-political rationale. [3]

Four states have laws that prohibit Americans who have been convicted of a felony crime from ever voting, even after they have completed their sentences. It is estimated that over 6 million Americans cannot vote because of this felony disenfranchisement.

In general, people who are better-off economically, have more education, and are older are more likely to vote and those who are low-income, young, and non-white are less likely to vote. For example, 41% of registered voters over 70 vote regularly while only 1% of those between 18 and 29 vote regularly.

Research has found that voters and non-voters support different economic policies. Not surprisingly, given their demographics, non-voters are more supportive of policies that promote economic equality and provide a safety net for those experiencing economic hardship. [4] Therefore, getting significant numbers of non-voters to vote would likely change election results and policies.

Some eligible voters don’t vote because they feel that their vote doesn’t matter. Gerrymandering of district boundaries means that indeed some voters don’t matter because the district they live in is overwhelming tilted to a party or ideology that they don’t support. In primary elections, some states require that you be registered in a party to vote in that party’s election. This means that the large number of voters who are independent or unenrolled in a party have no say in deciding which Democrat or Republican will appear on the ballot for the final election.

Some eligible voters feel, with good reason, that our electoral and political systems are rigged in favor of large corporations and employers, as well as the wealthy individuals who are typically the executives or investors in those corporations. Because our election campaigns are almost exclusively funded by wealthy individuals and corporations, and backed up with lobbying and the revolving door of personnel moving between corporations and positions in government, these alienated voters see no difference between the two political parties and feel their voices are inevitably drowned out at the ballot box and in policy debates.

Some analysts make the case that the lack of participation in our democracy and voting reflects not just a loss of faith in government and the efficacy of participation, but also a loss of experience with civic activity more broadly. A decline in volunteer participation in civic organizations and groups in the US has been documented since the 1960s. One study found that from 1994 to 2004 memberships in civic organizations and groups fell by 21%. This trend is likely accelerating. A 2010 census survey found that only 11% of respondents had served on a committee or as an officer of any group or organization in the previous year. Voluntary participation in churches, clubs, fraternal organizations, and labor unions, for example, provide individuals with experience with self-governance, democratic decision making, and participation in civic life focused on building community and working together for a greater good. As participation in local civic life has withered, the orientation to and understanding of the importance of participating in our democratic political process has declined as well. [5]

Higher voter participation would produce elected representatives that more accurately reflect the priorities of the public and, if participation were consistently high, would result in less partisanship and more stable policies. Currently, the Republicans in particular, but the Democrats too, are focused on low turnout elections where they pander to their hardcore supporters, known as their “base.” Therefore, their candidates and those who get elected tend to be focused on appealing to this small group of supporters who often have relatively extreme views. Higher voter participation would require the parties and their candidates to work to appeal to a broader set of voters. This would make a big difference in election results.

I encourage you to ask candidates and elected officials what they are doing to increase voter participation. This is a core issue that we must address if our democracy is to live up to its promise and potential.

[1]      The Sanders Institute, May 2018, “Why don’t Americans vote?” (https://www.sandersinstitute.com/blog/why-dont-americans-vote)

[2]      Khalid, A., Gonyea, D., & Fadel, L., 9/10/18, “On the sidelines of democracy: Exploring why so many Americans don’t vote,” National Public Radio (https://www.npr.org/2018/09/10/645223716/on-the-sidelines-of-democracy-exploring-why-so-many-americans-dont-vote)

[3]      Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 9/18/18, “New voting restrictions in America,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/new-voting-restrictions-america)

[4]      Khalid, Gonyea, & Fadel, 9/10/18, see above

[5]      Appelbaum, Y., Oct. 2018, “Americans aren’t practicing democracy anymore,” The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/losing-the-democratic-habit/568336/)

MUELLER’S INVESTIGATION RESULTS TO-DATE: 35 INDICTMENTS, 3 GUILTY PLEAS, AND MORE

I’m interrupting my series on a progressive policy agenda for the US, because I think it’s important to document the results of the Mueller investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election, given that President Trump and his supporters are apparently ramping up their efforts to discredit the investigation. (Much of this post is a summary of an article in the Huffington Post.) [1]

In 15 months of a very complex investigation, Mueller has gotten 35 indictments, 3 guilty pleas, 1 incarceration, and 1 on-going trial. Here are some of the details:

  • The on-going trial is of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. Although the charges he’s currently being tried on aren’t directly linked to the campaign, they involve work he did for Ukrainians with close ties to Putin and Russia. He also had close ties directly to Russians and attended the Trump Tower meeting with Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and a Kremlin-linked lawyer who supposedly had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
  • Rick Gates, who worked on the Trump campaign and on the Trump inauguration, pled guilty to lying to Mueller and FBI investigators, as well as to financial malfeasance. He was also Manafort’s business partner.
  • Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, pled guilty to lying about his meeting with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.
  • George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, was the first person to plead guilty in the Mueller probe. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his knowledge that Russians had thousands of apparently stolen emails that would embarrass Hillary Clinton. He had mentioned this to an Australian diplomat. When hacked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed information about Papadopoulos on to their American counterparts. Alarmed American officials had the FBI open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016, months before the presidential election. In accordance with FBI protocol, this investigation was kept secret. Papadopoulos was apparently one of the contacts the Russians used to try to establish secret communications with the Trump campaign.
  • Alex van der Zwaan is the one person who’s gone to jail as a result of the Mueller investigation. He’s the son-in-law of a Russian oligarch and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his work with two members of President Trump’s campaign team, Manafort and Gates. He served 30 days in a federal prison and has been deported to the Netherlands.
  • Thirteen Russians have been indicted for a multi-million dollar conspiracy to influence the 2016 election through social media. They pretended to be Americans and bought political ads and organized political events. Facebook acknowledges that these efforts reached at least 146 million people, almost half of the US population, through Facebook and Instagram.
  • Twelve Russian military officers, who work for Russia’s main intelligence agency, have been indicted for hacking into the email servers of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. They stole and then released thousands of emails. The content of these emails, along with reporting on their theft and release, dominated the news for weeks and clearly had an impact on the election.

The Mueller investigation is clearly a serious probe of significant and successful efforts to affect the 2016 election. Over its 15 months, the Mueller investigation has cost $7.7 million (as-of 3/31/18), a tiny fraction of the Justice Department budget of $28 billion. By way of comparison, the Starr probe of President Clinton lasted four and a half years (over 3 times as long) and cost $39 million, or around $58 million in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation (over 7 times as much). There were at least three other independent or special counsel investigations during the Clinton administration that cost more than Mueller’s probe has. [2]

This investigation is NOT partisan. Mueller and Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s investigation and is second in command at the Justice Department, are both Republicans. Mueller is a highly decorated Marine officer who has spent most of his career in the Justice Department. President Reagan appointed him the US Attorney for Massachusetts, and he later served as an assistant US Attorney in D.C.  and as US Attorney for Northern California. President George W. Bush appointed him second in command at the Justice Department and later as FBI Director. Congress unanimously extended his term as FBI Director in 2011. Rosenstein worked for the Starr investigation of President Clinton. President George W. Bush appointed him as US Attorney for Maryland and later nominated him to be a federal appeals court judge. President Trump appointed him as second in command at the Justice Department.

Before the election, in the early fall of 2016, the seriousness of foreign efforts to influence the election were becoming clear to US intelligence and criminal justice officials. President Obama convened a bipartisan meeting with members of Congress. His goal was to develop a bipartisan public statement on the Russian efforts to influence the election. He felt it was essential to have it be bipartisan so that it didn’t appear to be a partisan issue during the election. But the Republicans refused to go along, and no public statement was made.

Trump and his supporters have engaged in persistent, on-going efforts to discredit Mueller, Rosenstein, and the investigation. Their goal, according to Trump’s lawyer Giuliani, is to get the public to question the legitimacy of the investigation. The only reason I can think of that they would want to do that is because they are worried about the results of the investigation. From Trump’s personal perspective, which does seem to be all he really cares about, the most likely negative outcome of the investigation is evidence that would support impeachment.

The most likely impeachment charge against Trump is obstruction of justice, assuming no smoking gun of direct Russian collusion on his part is uncovered. So far the most likely obstruction of justice charges would be 1) his request that then-FBI director Comey stop the investigation of Michael Flynn’s meeting with the Russian ambassador, 2) his firing of FBI Director Comey, apparently in an effort to stop the investigation into Russian interference in the election, 3) his attempts to get Attorney General Sessions to rescind his recusal and take charge of the investigation (even though he met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign), and 4) his incessant efforts to discredit and undermine the investigation. As you think about whether this obstruction of justice might be grounds for impeachment, remember that President Clinton was impeached by the US House of Representatives (but the Senate failed to convict him) for obstruction of justice for lying to law enforcement about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. If lying about an affair is grounds for impeachment, President Trump is right to be worried.

(Note: The investigation of Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, is not part of Mueller’s investigation, although it is reportedly the result of a referral from the Mueller team. The investigation of Cohen is being undertaken by the US Attorney in New York.)

[1]      Reilly, R.J., 7/27/18, “The Mueller investigation, explained. Here’s your guide to the Trump-Russia probe,” HuffPost (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mueller-investigation-trump-russia-probe_us_5b4cdda5e4b0e7c958fe3141)

[2]      Kutner, M., 12/5/17, “Mueller’s Trump investigation cost slammed by Republican: ‘They must be having one hell of a Christmas party’,” Newsweek

WINNING ELECTIONS BY EXCITING VOTERS WITH PROGRESSIVE POLICIES

We need to elect people to Congress in November who will stand up to vested and powerful interests (namely wealthy individuals and large corporations) on behalf of everyday working people and families. We need to do this to rescue our democracy from plutocracy. This will require a high voter turnout, which will happen only if voters are excited and enthusiastic about the candidates they are voting for. It does not happen if voters are just voting against the other candidate or party, or for the lesser of two evils; that is not enough to motivate many voters to get out and vote.

In the last presidential election, despite all the attention it got, less than 56% – barely half – of eligible citizens actually voted. Although Trump and Clinton each excited a relatively small segment of voters, the electorate at large was not excited by either of these two candidates. Senator Sanders in his run for the Democratic nomination excited more voters and had more voters enthusiastically voting for him than either Trump or Clinton. President Obama excited enough voters, particularly Blacks, in his 2008 run for president that 62% of eligible voters went to the polls, which is the highest turnout since 1970, but still well below voter turnout among most of the other relatively wealthy democracies. (I’ll do a subsequent post on low voter participation in the US and reasons for it.).

If Democrats want to win in November, they need to put forward a clear, progressive agenda that will excite and motivate a broad swath of the electorate. Such a strategy has the potential to increase turnout substantially by getting people who vote irregularly or who have never voted excited and wanting to go vote. This is particularly important in non-presidential elections when typically, only 40% of eligible voters go to the polls. Some Democrats think that running against President Trump and the Republicans who are enabling his behavior and policies will lead them to electoral success. This is a risky strategy; it’s much better to be running for something than against something.

Exciting and motivating voters is what Senator Sanders did in his surprisingly successful and almost victorious campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. This is what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did in winning a shocking upset in her recent primary election victory for a US House seat in New York. This is what Senators Merkley and Warren and others are doing in their re-election bids. And what a wide range of candidates for local, state, and national offices are doing across the country. It is why Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez were in Kansas supporting two candidates for Congress, James Thompson and Brent Wilder. Overflow crowds of thousands enthusiastically rallied for these progressive candidates in Republican Kansas. [1]

An emerging progressive movement is evident in at least four candidates for Governor (in Florida, Maryland, Michigan, and New York), at least 53 congressional candidates, and too-numerous-to-count candidates for state legislatures and local government posts. [ 2] These candidates are listening to the grassroots and to polls that show what Americans want from their government – good jobs with fair pay, good K-12 public education, affordable higher education, support for balancing work and family, a health care system that works (with many specifically supporting a single-payer system or Medicare-for-all), and economic security. Unfortunately, many of the leaders of the Democratic party are resisting this progressive ground swell of energy, fighting against it by supporting centrist and corporate-leaning candidates rather than progressive, grassroots candidates.

Many in the media and some political pundits are describing this progressive movement as “far left.” That may be true in today’s political climate, but it is not true historically. Many of the progressive policies being espoused by the current progressive movement were mainstream Democratic policies in the 1960s and a surprising number of them were supported by Republicans then as well. As a more recent example, believe it or not, the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – the requirement that everyone buy health insurance – was a conservative, Republican think tank policy proposal. Despite the vehement Republican attacks on the individual mandate ever since the ACA was proposed – and Democrats’ unwillingness to defend it with any vigor – the individual mandate was proposed by the very conservative and Republican Heritage Foundation as part of its plan for comprehensive national legislation to provide universal “quality, affordable health care.” The plan was introduced in a 1989 book, “A National Health System for America,” by Butler and Haislmaier. [3]

In labeling current progressive policy proposals as “far left,” people are forgetting that President Clinton and other Democrats in the late 1980s and 1990s moved the Democratic Party a long way to the right and toward the political center in their efforts to win the presidency after 12 years of Republican presidents and then to win Clinton’s re-election.

The emerging progressive movement is getting short shrift from our mainstream media. A dramatic example is the lack of media coverage of the Poor People’s Campaign. From late May through June, it sponsored 40 days of action including multiple rallies and civil disobedience actions in Washington, D.C., and 30 state capitals but it got almost no coverage in the mainstream media. Thousands of people demonstrated, and hundreds were arrested for civil disobedience, but coverage was minimal. It was organized to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s original Poor People’s Campaign that linked the issues of civil rights and economic justice for all. [4] [5]

A number of groups have been organized to support progressive, grassroots candidates including Our Revolution (the spinoff from Senator Sanders presidential campaign), the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (which describes itself as the Senator Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party), the Working Families Party, Indivisible, Justice Democrats, and Brand New Congress. They provide numerous opportunities to support progressive candidates and activities, if you’re so motivated.

These organizations and the candidates they support are putting forth a progressive policy agenda. However, they tend to do so in a piecemeal fashion that makes it hard to grasp or summarize overall goals. In my next posts, I will summarize various proposals for an overall progressive policy agenda for the US that would excite voters by addressing issues that truly matter to working Americans.

[1]      Nichols, J., 7/20/18, “Sander and Ocasio-Cortez rally Kansas for a working-class politics that stands up to the Kochs,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/sanders-ocasio-cortez-rally-kansas-working-class-politics-stands-kochs/)

[2]      Burns, A., 7/21/18, “There is a revolution on the left. Democrats are bracing,” The New York Times

[3]      Roy, A., 10/20/11, “How the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, promoted the individual mandate,” Forbes (https://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2011/10/20/how-a-conservative-think-tank-invented-the-individual-mandate/#720de15a6187)

[4]      Sarkar, S., 5/23/18, “Hundreds of Poor People’s Campaign activists got themselves arrested for racial justice,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/05/23/hundreds-poor-peoples-campaign-activists-got-themselves-arrested-racial-justice)

[5]      Corbett, J., 6/21/18, “‘Stop the war! Feed the poor!’: March by Poor People’s Campaign ends with arrests in DC,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/06/21/stop-war-feed-poor-march-poor-peoples-campaign-ends-arrests-dc)

STOPPING GERRYMANDERING; RESTORING DEMOCRACY

Gerrymandering, the manipulation of the boundaries of electoral districts to predetermine outcomes, has become more blatant, dramatic, and effective in the 21st century. Please see my previous post for a discussion of how extreme partisan gerrymandering is undermining our democracy. The redrawing of electoral districts is done every ten years after new population data is available from the Census. Typically, state legislatures do the redistricting, and these partisan, elected officials have a built-in incentive to engage in partisan and other types of gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering can be stopped through multiple strategies:

  • Challenging gerrymandered districts in court,
  • Establishing standards for districts and the redistricting process, and
  • Creating non-partisan commissions to do the redistricting.

Districts that appear to be gerrymandered are being challenged in state and federal courts. In Pennsylvania, state courts ruled that the districts drawn after the 2010 Census were illegally gerrymandered and the US Supreme Court upheld this finding. There are currently two other cases before the US Supreme Court, one from Wisconsin challenging Republican gerrymandering and one from Maryland challenging Democratic gerrymandering. Decisions are expected to be announced this month. Unfortunately, these decisions will probably be too late to allow the gerrymandering to be fixed before the 2018 elections. [1]

Another solution to gerrymandering is to write standards into state or federal laws that govern how districts are drawn and the redistricting process used to draw them. There are several statistical tests that can be done of historical election results to identify whether gerrymandering is likely to have played a role in the outcomes. These tests can also be applied to projected results based on party enrollment and past voting patterns in proposed districts. [2] [3] These tests are valuable because they can be used during the redistricting process or by courts afterwards to determine if districts are being drawn fairly.

Perhaps, most promising is the creation by states of truly non-partisan, independent redistricting commissions that remove redistricting from the hands of partisan legislatures. Currently, twenty-one states use some form of redistricting commission for redrawing either or both of state legislative districts and congressional districts. Some are more independent of partisan political influence than others. [4]

The use of and interest in redistricting commissions is growing. In 2017, 29 state legislatures considered bills related to creating redistricting commissions. In the Pennsylvania legislature, a bill to create a redistricting commission is gaining significant support. In other states, citizens are putting measures to create redistricting commissions on the ballot. In Ohio, a badly gerrymandered state, 75% of voters recently approved a proposal on the ballot to extend the role of their independent redistricting commission to include congressional districts, in addition to state legislative districts. This was forced on elected officials by a grassroots campaign that collected nearly 250,000 signatures. Michigan is likely to have a proposal on its November 2018 ballot to create such a commission because of a grassroots organization that collected 425,000 signatures. Redistricting reforms are likely to appear on the ballot this fall in Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri, and Utah. These redistricting reform efforts are backed by strong bipartisan coalitions. [5] [6]

Gerrymandering is a significant threat to representative democracy as it undermines the basic tenet that every voter has an equal voice. It distorts democracy and lets the voices of a small subset of voters, often those with extreme views, dominate elections. The elected representatives, therefore, tend to reflect these minority and often extreme views, leading to extreme partisanship and gridlock in our legislative bodies.

In gerrymandered districts, many voters, with good reason, don’t feel they have a voice and that their elected officials don’t represent their interests and points of view. The broad support for ending extreme partisan gerrymandering is bipartisan: 80% of Democrats, 68% of independents, and 65% of Republicans back efforts to end it.

I urge you to contact your representatives in your state legislature and ask them to ensure fair redistricting after the 2020 Census. If you’re in one of the states mentioned above as likely to have a relevant ballot question in November, I encourage you to find information on the effort to reform redistricting and then get involved if you can. To learn more about the redistricting process in your state, the National Conference of State Legislatures has information here, and if you’re interested in knowing if there was a bill filed in your state legislature relative to the creation of a redistricting commission look here. For more information on ending gerrymandering and other reforms to our voting systems in general, Fair Vote has lots of information on its website.

[1]      Wheeler, R., 2/28/18, “The Supreme Court and partisan gerrymandering cases,” The Brookings Institution (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/unpacked/2018/02/28/the-supreme-court-and-partisan-gerrymandering-cases/)

[2]      Wang, S., & Remlinger, B., 9/25/17, “Slaying the partisan gerrymander,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/slaying-partisan-gerrymander)

[3]      Royden, L., Li, M., & Rudensky, Y., 3/23/18, “Extreme Gerrymandering & the 2018 midterm,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/extreme-gerrymandering-2018-midterm)

[4]      Wikipedia, Retrieved from the Internet 6/4/18, “Redistricting commission” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redistricting_commission)

[5]      Rapoport, M., 12/7/17, “Prospects brightening for redistricting reform,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/prospects-brightening-redistricting-reform)

[6]      Daley, D., 6/14/18, “Voters take charge in making elections more fair,” The Boston Globe

GERRYMANDERING IS UNDERMINING OUR DEMOCRACY

Gerrymandering, the manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral district to predetermine the outcome based on party, race, incumbency, or other factors, has been happening for a long time. Traditionally, it was used to protect individual incumbents or to limit black and minority representation.

Typically, the state legislature redraws the boundaries of its state’s electoral districts with the new Census data available every ten years. With the 2020 Census coming up soon, there are efforts that some believe are meant to undercount hard-to-reach populations such as low-income households, minorities, and immigrants. (See my previous post for more detail.) If this occurs, it would mean that these residents will be under-represented when electoral districts are drawn, and, therefore, their voice and representation in state and federal legislative bodies would be diminished.

Gerrymandering has become more blatant, dramatic, and effective in the 21st century. It has been both fueled and exacerbated by partisanship and extremism in our state and national legislative bodies. It has been facilitated by increasingly sophisticated computer technology for mapping, analyzing, and tracking voters’ preferences and history. Historically, both Democrats and Republicans have engaged in gerrymandering.

Independent analyses find that in the redrawing of districts for the US House of Representatives following the decennial Censuses from 1970 to 2000, Democrats engaged in what’s called extreme partisan gerrymandering in one state after each of these four redistricting cycles. This occurred most dramatically in California in 1980. At its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, the best estimates are that through gerrymandering Democrats gained 3 – 5 seats in the House (out of 435 seats) above what would have otherwise been expected. After the 2010 Census, the Democrats did not engage in extreme partisan gerrymandering in any state. [1]

In redistricting after the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, independent analyses of the redrawing of districts for the US House find that Republicans engaged in extreme partisan gerrymandering in four states and seven states, respectively. The best estimates are that Republicans currently gain, through gerrymandering, between 15 and 20 seats in the House (out of 435 seats) above what would have otherwise been expected. A shift of 22 seats would change control from Republicans to Democrats.

For example, North Carolina is one of the states with extreme partisan gerrymandering of its Congressional districts. As a result, in 2012, Democrats got 51% of the votes for Congress statewide, but only won 4 of 13 seats in the House. In Pennsylvania, another state with extreme partisan gerrymandering, Democrats received just over half of the votes in 2012 but only 5 of 18 Congressional seats. [2] (This previous post has more information on the 2012 election results and on gerrymandering.)

Partisan gerrymandering has also dramatically affected thousands of seats in state legislatures. In Wisconsin, for example, in the 2012 election, Republicans received 49% of the statewide vote but got 60% of the seats in the Assembly of the state legislature. [3]

Extreme partisan gerrymandering has another, more insidious, effect. Nationwide, almost 100 of the 435 seats in the US House have been gerrymandered so only one of the two parties can win the seat. This means that the final election in November is meaningless for these seats. It also means that the voters of the party not in control of the district are effectively disenfranchised – their votes don’t matter (at least in terms of the election of their US Representative). Hence, tens of millions of voters effectively have no say in who is elected as their congressional representative.

In these congressional districts, gerrymandered to allow only one of the parties to win, the only election that matters is that party’s primary. Given the low voter participation in primary elections, a small number of voters, often ones with relatively extreme political views, determines who the US Representative will be. This is a significant contributing factor to the extreme partisanship and gridlock in Congress.

Extreme partisan gerrymandering insulates elected officials from all but a small handful of their constituents – those that vote for them in primary elections. Therefore, these congressional representatives do not need to worry about representing the interests of most of their constituents. When elected representatives redraw legislative districts after the Censuses and engage in gerrymandering, essentially the elected officials are picking their voters, rather than voters choosing their elected representatives.

This is clearly undermining democracy and the democratic principle of one person, one vote, i.e., that each voter has an equal voice in our democracy.

Partisan gerrymandering is accomplished by packing as many supporters of the opposition party into as few districts as possible. The opponents will win these seats overwhelmingly. Meanwhile, supporters of your party are spread more evenly across the other districts, so your party will comfortably win as many seats as possible. For example, in Pennsylvania in 2012, as the result of Republican gerrymandering, the Democrats won 5 congressional districts by an average margin of 76% to 24% (a 52 percentage point margin). The Republicans won 13 districts by an average of 59% to 41% (an 18 percentage point margin). [4] Clearly, if the Democratic voters had been spread out more evenly, the Democrats would have won more seats but by smaller margins. Overall, Democrats got about 350,000 votes and Republicans got about 250,000, but the Republicans won 13 of 18 seats. With fair districts, Democrats would have gotten 10 or 11 seats and Republicans 7 or 8 seats. So, extreme partisan gerrymandering produced a swing of 5 or 6 seats to the Republicans in Pennsylvania.

My next post will discuss what can be done to stop gerrymandering.

[1]      Wang, S., & Remlinger, B., 9/25/17, “Slaying the partisan gerrymander,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/slaying-partisan-gerrymander)

[2]      Li, M., 2/6/18, “What Pennsylvania’s landmark partisan gerrymandering ruling means,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/blog/what-pennsylvania-landmark-partisan-gerrymandering-ruling-means)

[3]      Fried, C., 7/10/17, “Gerrymandering is unfair and unjust,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Ballotpedia, retrieved from the Internet on 6/4/18, “United States House of Representatives elections in Pennsylvania, 2012” (https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_House_of_Representatives_elections_in_Pennsylvania,_2012)

VOTER SUPPRESSION IS A REAL THREAT TO OUR DEMOCRACY

The biggest threat to the integrity of our elections is voter suppression. Our democracy is built on the principle of one person, one vote, and the right of every citizen to cast his or her vote and have it counted. However, in the 2016 presidential election, hundreds of thousands of citizens were kept from voting by new state laws and procedures that have made it harder to vote.

State laws and procedures that inhibit voting are part of a Republican strategy to win elections at any cost. (This strategy also includes the overturning of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, extreme gerrymandering of legislative and Congressional districts, as well as loosening campaign finance laws to allow wealthy individuals and corporations to spend freely and often anonymously on our elections.)

These voter suppression techniques are designed to reduce voting by low-income and minority citizens, who are more likely to vote for Democrats. The techniques include making it harder to register to vote, purging names of eligible voters from voting lists, permanently prohibiting those with felony convictions from voting even after they have served their time, and making it harder to actually vote.

States have made it harder to vote by reducing the number of polling places, reducing the days and hours for voting, and requiring specific personal identification – and sometimes making it difficult to obtain the required photo identification document. These actions often target communities or neighborhoods that are disproportionately low-income or minority.

For example, Wisconsin passed a restrictive voting law in 2011. Although state Republicans promised that not a single voter would be disenfranchised by the law, the best estimates are that 200,000 – 300,000 eligible voters lacked the photo ID necessary to vote in the 2016 presidential election. And Republican state legislators acknowledged in more candid moments that Democratic voter suppression was the goal. The law also cut early voting days, hours, and locations.

A judge struck down the law as clear voter suppression, but was overruled by a conservative appeals court. A judge overseeing the implementation of the law, repeatedly criticized the state for its failure to provide IDs in a timely fashion and for other actions that inhibited voting. [1] Overall, the result was that 91,000 fewer people voted in Wisconsin in 2016 than in 2012 and the turnout was the lowest since 2000. After the election, many eligible voters’ stories of being unable to vote were reported by the media. [2]

Trump won the election in Wisconsin by just 22,750 votes (less than 1%) and the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts may well have been the deciding factor. In Milwaukee, where 70% of the state’s African Americans live and Democratic voting is strong, 41,000 fewer people voted than in 2012, a 13% drop. [3] It’s possible that some of this may have been due to lowered interest without Obama on the ballot. However, a recent study found that in Milwaukee and Dane counties [4] 11% of registered voters (17,000 people) were deterred from voting by Wisconsin’s voter ID law and 6% (9,000) were prevented from voting by the ID law. Among low-income registered voters (household income under $25,000), 21% were deterred from voting, compared to 7% with incomes over $25,000 and 3% with incomes over $100,000. For white registered voters, 8% were deterred from voting, while for African Americans it was 28%. [5] Statewide it is estimated that 45,000 voters were deterred from voting by Wisconsin’s voter ID law. It is likely that this alone (not including the other voter suppression efforts) switched the Wisconsin presidential election outcome and its 10 electoral college votes from Clinton to Trump.

In Michigan, a Trump campaign official stated prior to the election that they had a three-pronged voter suppression effort underway. The Michigan voter ID law, as in Wisconsin, clearly prevented or discouraged many eligible voters from voting. Furthermore, 55,000 voters had been purged from the voter registration lists based on an error-prone process of matching their names with the names of registered voters in other states. Finally, in Detroit, a recount was cut short despite large numbers of ballots that voting machines failed to read properly, but where the voter’s intent was clear based on a visual examination of the ballot.

Given that Trump won the election in Michigan by 10,700 votes (less than ¼ of 1%), the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts are likely to have been the deciding factor in his victory there, which gained him 16 electoral college votes.

In Pennsylvania, a strict voter ID law was passed in 2012, but was overturned by the courts before the 2016 election. Other voter suppression efforts were identified in 2012 and responses to them lessened their impacts on the 2016 election. However, in 2016, a delay in processing valid voter registrations kept at least 26,000 voters off the list of registered voters on election day, and the number could go higher if further investigation is done. The majority of the identified disenfranchised voters were in the diverse city of Philadelphia.

Given that Trump won the election in Pennsylvania by 44,300 votes (less than 1%), the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts might have been the deciding factor in his victory there, which gained him 16 electoral college votes. [6]

A change in the winner in these three states with 46 electoral votes would have changed the outcome of the presidential election. So, the impact of voter suppression efforts is potentially very significant.

These three states are examples of a broad, decade-long attack on voting rights. Over 20 states have passed new restrictions on voting since 2010. [7] An analysis from the non-partisan General Accounting Office (GAO) examined the effect of voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee in 2012. It concluded that due to their new voter ID laws, voter turnout dropped 1.9% in Kansas and 2.2% in Tennessee. That would represent about 34,000 voters in Kansas and about 88,000 in Tennessee. The GAO’s analysis found that young people, Blacks, and newly registered voters were disproportionately impacted. [8]

The US Supreme Court overturned key portions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, claiming that racial discrimination in voting was no longer a problem. However, subsequent events proved them wrong. Within months of this decision, states were passing voter suppression laws that federal courts have noted were “passed with racially discriminatory intent.” [9] A judge struck down a package of voter suppression laws in North Carolina last year, noting that they targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision.” [10]

Nationally, it is estimated that 10% of eligible voters (13 million people) don’t have an ID that would comply with new state voter ID laws. And although some of the most egregious voter suppression laws have been struck down by the courts, this often doesn’t happen until after the election when the damage has been done.

Voter suppression is antithetical to the principles and integrity of our democracy. Not only does it distort and manipulate the outcomes of our elections, it violates the one person, one vote, foundational equity of democracy and undermines the trust of the electorate in our governments. It makes elected officials less accountable to the people they supposedly represent. It harms our credibility around the world as our elections are seen as illegitimate and rigged. We need to condemn and fight back against voter suppression efforts as undemocratic and truly un-American.

[1]      Berman, A., Nov. / Dec. 2017, “Rigged: How voter suppression threw Wisconsin to Trump and changed the election,” Mother Jones (http://www.motherjones.com/mag/2017/11/toc/)

[2]      Cassidy, C.A., & Moreno, I., 5/9/17, “In Wisconsin, ID law proved insurmountable for many voters,” Associated Press (http://www.apnewsarchive.com/2017/In_Wisconsin%2C_ID_law_proved_insurmountable_for_many_voters/id-624a00e48a444f2c8fbd2faa07d44ad5)

[3]      Rapoport, M., 8/7/17, “Voter suppression in the mirror and looking forward,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/voter-suppression-mirror-and-looking-forward)

[4]      These 2 counties account for almost 1.5 million of Wisconsin’s 5.8 million residents.

[5]      Mayer, K.R., 9/25/17, “Voter ID study shows turnout effects in 2016 presidential election,” University of Wisconsin at Madison (https://elections.wisc.edu/news/voter-id-study/Voter-ID-Study-Release.pdf)

[6]      Rapoport, M., 8/7/17, see above

[7]      Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 10/13/17, “New voting restrictions in America,”  New York University of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/new-voting-restrictions-america)

[8]      Bump, P., 10/9/14, “Voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee dropped voter turnout by over 100,000 votes,” The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/10/09/gao-voter-id-laws-in-kansas-and-tennessee-dropped-2012-turnout-by-over-100000-votes/?utm_term=.6f7fb4686bcf)

[9]      Coons, C., & Austin-Hillery, N., 6/30/17, “The threat to American elections you don’t know about but should,” Time (http://time.com/4837622/voter-suppression-democracy-senator-chris-coons/)

[10]     Cassidy & Moreno, 5/9/17, see above

GOOD NEWS FROM THE 2016 ELECTIONS

Believe it or not, there was quite a bit of good news in the 2016 elections. While I imagine many of us feel that the election of Donald Trump as president was bad news for our country, the frustration that fueled his election has positive aspects.

First, the election of Trump and the surprising success of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary both reflect a strongly-felt, deep-seated frustration that many middle class and working people have with the downward slide in their economic security and well-being. If they have been able to maintain their standard of living over the last 35 years, it has been a struggle. Often, they have had to work more hours at the same or lower pay. Many have lost jobs that moved overseas or to lower wage areas within the US. Some have had their pay or benefits cut due to overseas competition or the decline of collective bargaining through unions. Meanwhile, they have watched the income and wealth of the economic and corporate elite skyrocket.

Small businesses have struggled while giant, multi-national corporations have been bailed out and given huge tax breaks and other subsidies. Our elections and political system have produced policies that favor big corporations, while small business people struggle, just like others in the middle and working class.

Voters did not give any sort of mandate to Trump and the Republicans to enact their policy priorities. As you probably know, 3 million more people voted for Clinton than for Trump. In US Senate races, Republicans won only 46% of the popular vote – but got 52% of the seats. In the House, the Republicans won only 51% of the vote – but got 55% of the seats. [1]

Only 53% of eligible voters actually voted. This means that barely one out of four eligible voters voted for Trump and the Republicans. And the only reason Republicans won the presidency (courtesy of the Electoral College) and a majority in the US Senate is because of the disproportionate power given to small states in those bodies.

Republicans won a significant majority of US House seats only because of the gerrymandering of House districts (i.e., the drawing of district lines to gain partisan advantage). Due to this gerrymandering, it is estimated the Democrats would need to receive about 10 million more votes nationwide than Republicans (i.e., almost 55% of the vote) in House races to gain a narrow majority of the seats. [2]

Not only don’t Trump and the Republicans have any mandate, but many election results were in direct contradiction to their brand of conservatism and their policy positions. Three very progressive women of color were newly elected to the US Senate: Tammy Duckworth in IL, Kamala Harris in CA, and Catherine Cortez Masto in NV. Two very progressive women of color were newly elected to the US House: Pramila Jayapal in WA and Stephanie Murphy in FL.

In Oregon, Kate Brown, was elected Governor as a candidate of the Working Families Party. In AZ, ultra-right wing sheriff Arpaio was defeated by a Democrat. In MN, a Somali-American woman, Ihlan Omar, was elected to the legislature. And in TX four Latinos gained seats in the legislature. [3]

Important progressive policies were enacted by voters through ballot initiatives. All four states (AZ, CO, ME, and WA) that had minimum wage increases on the ballot passed them. Overall, the minimum wage will increase in 19 states on January 1st. This will increase wages for 4.3 million workers, providing them with over $4 billion of increased income over the course of the year. Millions of additional workers who earn just above the new minimum wage levels will also likely receive pay increases. The well-being of all these workers and their families will improve. [4] Income inequality will be reduced and all workers and the middle class will benefit.

AZ and WA also passed laws requiring paid sick time, while SD rejected a decrease in the minimum wage for teenagers and VA rejected an anti-union initiative.

CA and WA passed initiatives calling for overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (which allows unlimited spending by the wealthy in campaigns). MO and SD passed new laws regulating campaign spending. SD also passed an innovative $100 annual Democracy Credit for each voter to encourage small donors to participate in funding campaigns. Voters approved citizen-funded elections in Berkeley, CA, and Howard County, MD. They approved automatic voter registration in AK with a strong 64% vote in favor, while four other states enacted automatic voter registration through their state legislatures in 2016.

Maine voted for “ranked choice voting” which allows voters to indicate their first, second, third, etc. choices on the ballot. If your first choice is out of the running, then your second choice is counted, and so forth. Therefore, you can vote for the candidate you truly believe is best, without worrying that you might be aiding the election of a candidate you really don’t like. (For example, you could have voted for Ralph Nader for President in 2000 with Al Gore as your second choice, without worrying that your vote for Nader would help George W. Bush get elected.)

In CA, MA, ME, and OR progressive values prevailed in education reform ballot initiatives. CA and OK passed significant criminal justice reforms. [5] CA, NV, and WA strengthened laws designed to reduce gun violence, while RI and SD strengthened ethics laws for elected officials. [6]

These are only a few examples of the many successes in state and local elections on ballot initiatives, as well as on the election of candidates that will stand up for middle class and working people.

The support for candidates and policies that bolster the middle class and working people is broad and deep in the US. We all need to work together to ensure that the Republican Congress and President Trump work to improve the well-being of the 99% of people in this country who aren’t wealthy. We must be vigilant to ensure that the policies they enact aren’t for the benefit of the 1%, don’t exacerbate income and wealth inequality, and don’t continue the crony capitalism that benefits our giant, multinational corporations and their senior executives at the expense of small businesses and workers.

[1]      Singer, P., 11/10/16, “Democrats won popular vote in the Senate, too,” USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2016/11/10/democrats-won-popular-vote-senate-too/93598998/)

[2]      Richie, R., 11/7/14, “Republicans got only 52 percent of the vote in House races,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/republicans-only-got-52-percent-vote-house-races/)

[3]      Hightower, J., 12/8/16, “We can beat back the reign of Trump – if we unite in a movement for populist justice,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/beat-trump-with-populist-justice/)

[4]      Jones, J., 1/3817, “The new year brings higher wages for 4.3 million workers across the country,” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/blog/the-new-year-brings-higher-wages-for-4-3-million-workers-across-the-country/?mc_cid=d213e59597&mc_eid=2442dd3ea2)

[5]      Hightower, J., 12/8/16, see above

[6]      Politico, 12/13/16, “2016 ballot measures election results,” (http://www.politico.com/2016-election/results/map/ballot-measures)

BIG CAMPAIGN SPENDING AT STATE-LEVEL FLIES UNDER THE RADAR

With all the focus on the Presidential and Congressional elections, the enormous amounts of money spent on state-level races and ballot questions has gone largely unnoticed. Coverage by the mainstream corporate media is minimal, in part due to cuts in budgets for reporting that increase corporate profits. But that’s a whole other topic.

According to the National Institute of Money in State Politics (NIMSP), a small Montana nonprofit that has the most detailed nationwide records, spending in state and local races is likely to exceed $3 billion this year. [1] This may not seem like a huge sum when spread across many elections in 50 states, but a relatively small amount of money can have a big impact on state races and ballot questions. For example, the cost of a campaign for the most expensive state legislative seat in the country, a Virginia Senate seat, is “only” $500,000. And $1 million or so can fund a successful campaign for a state Supreme Court seat. [2] Campaign spending that can swing the outcome of a state election represents a modest investment for a corporation or individual with a significant financial interest at stake. [3]

The portion of campaign money contributed to state and local races by individuals is typically less than half of the total and stands at 38% for the 2016 elections. The rest is donated by political groups, corporations, unions, and other organizations. [4] The amount of money coming from out-of-state sources and dark money entities is growing. The portion of spending in state elections for which voters know the true identity of the original donor has declined from three-fourths in 2006 to only one-fourth today. [5]

The most disturbing aspect of state campaign spending is the growing spending on judicial elections by those with vested interests in court decisions. (See this previous post for more details.) These inherent conflicts of interest threaten the integrity of our judicial system. In addition, growing spending on judicial races by the political parties is politicizing our state courts and undermining their impartiality.

More than $26 million was raised for judicial races in the 27 states that had judicial elections this fall. In Texas, where over $2 million was raised, the major donors are law firms who have a clear vested interest in judicial decisions. Louisiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin also had judicial races that attracted over $2 million. [6] In addition to trial lawyers, corporate-funded groups (such as energy, medical, insurance, manufacturing, and real estate interests) and unions have been big donors to judicial races. Education funding and charter school issues have emerged as important judicial issues in Washington State and Louisiana. Therefore, those with a financial stake in those decisions have emerged as large campaign donors for Supreme Court races in those states.

Many of the donors to judicial races are frequent litigants in state courts. This raises serious concerns about conflicts of interest and the possibility that judges will need to (or should) recuse themselves from significant numbers of cases. However, because of weak disclosure laws and the presence of dark money (where the true donors are hidden from the public), in many cases the presence of a conflict of interest may not be publicly known.

Furthermore, the advertising for or against judges, which is how most of the campaign money is spent, tends to focus on criminal cases, even though the real interests of those paying for the ads are in the arena of civil and commercial cases. A common strategy is to attack a judge as “soft on crime” or to highlight a high-visibility, emotional case and criticize the judge’s handling of it without discussing any of its complexities or legal issues. Not only does this affect voting in elections, but there is evidence that it affects judges’ decisions in criminal cases. [7] (See this previous post for more details.)

Donations from political party-affiliated groups politicize judicial elections, which are most often, technically, non-partisan. The Republican State Leadership Committee has been particularly active, spending over $4 million on this year’s state judicial races. Politically-affiliated donations create the perception – if not the reality – that judicial decisions are made on political grounds, rather than impartially based on the law. [8]

Allowing individuals and groups with financial or partisan interests to donate large amounts to judges’ election campaigns undermines the credibility of our court system. These donations compromise judicial impartiality, fairness, and independence, which are essential in a democracy.

There are two solutions to the problems raised by large campaign donations to judicial races:

  1. Appoint judges using a good, non-partisan process with reasonably long or lifetime terms (with a mandatory retirement provision); or
  2. Establish citizen funding and effective regulation of judges’ elections including:
    • Partial public financing through matching of individuals’ small donations in exchange for limits on spending and the size of contributions;
    • Tight regulation and full disclosure of outside, truly independent spending; and
    • Strong conflict of interest and recusal standards for judges.

(See this previous post for more details.)

A fair and impartial justice system is essential in a democracy. Judges need to serve the public interest and not be beholden to wealthy special interests. Therefore, judges should be appointed by a transparent, non-partisan process. If judges are elected, it is critical to have a well-structured and regulated campaign finance system that prevents special interests from having undue influence.

[1]      Quist, P., 10/17/16, “$1 Billion…and Counting,” National Institute of Money in State Politics (http://www.followthemoney.org/research/blog/1-billion-and-counting/)

[2]      Johnson, G., 11/1/16, “A look at notable state supreme court races in 2016,” The Washington Post

[3]      Chisun, L., Valde, K., Brickner, B.T., & Keith, D., 6/26/16, “Secret spending in the states,” Brennan Center for Justice (http://www.brennancenter.org/publication/secret-spending-states#Introduction)

[4]      Light, J., 10/13/16, “The $1 billion election no one is noticing,” Moyers and Company (http://billmoyers.com/story/candidates-state-offices-raised-one-billion-dollars/)

[5]      Chisun, L., et al., 6/26/16, see above

[6]      Light, J., 10/13/16, see above

[7]      Brennan Center for Justice, 10/18/16, “New analysis: Outside spending surges in important state judicial races as Election Day nears,” New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/press-release/new-analysis-outside-spending-surges-important-state-judicial-races-election-day-nears)

[8]      Brennan Center for Justice, 10/18/16, see above

HOW CAMPAIGN DONOR SECRECY IS MAINTAINED AND WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT

Republicans in Congress, and particularly Senate leader Mitch McConnell, have made preventing increased disclosure of campaign donors a top priority. They have refused to act on the DISCLOSE Act that would require disclosure of donors to political spending by outside groups. They have added riders to must-pass bills prohibiting the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from issuing a rule requiring disclosure of corporate political spending. They have blocked the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from regulating the political activity of non-profits that do not have to disclose donors. They are also attempting to block a presidential executive order that would require federal contractors to disclose political spending. Furthermore, they have actually proposed weakening existing regulations on campaign spending, including allowing coordination between super PACs and candidates’ campaigns, as well as removing limits on how much political parties can spend in coordination with candidates’ campaigns. [1]

The Securities and Exchange Commission has failed to write rules for corporate disclosure of political activity, which it was required to do by the financial sector reforms after the 2008 crash. The head of the SEC has delayed work on these rules despite investors’ interest in having corporate political spending disclosed. The SEC’s failure to write these disclosure rules led Senator Elizabeth Warren to call on President Obama to fire Mary Jo White, the head of the SEC. [2]

The US Chamber of Commerce, a top source of dark money and a close ally of Congressional Republicans, is a strong opponent of any disclosure of corporate political spending, even voluntary disclosure. Nonetheless, nearly half of the S&P 500 largest corporations have voluntary disclosure policies. They see transparency as an antidote to possible negative repercussions and as a buffer against pressure from various groups and individuals to contribute to political activity. [3] The Chamber of Commerce apparently believes that secrecy is necessary to allow it to continue to wield power and influence with our elected officials.

A final indication of the desire for secrecy by wealthy campaign donors, as well as the lengths they will go to to maintain secrecy, was the drop-off in activity, particularly TV ads, by dark money groups when the Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) more stringent reporting requirements went into effect. Sixty days before the election, spending on all TV ads that mention a candidate must be reported to the FEC. Prior to that cut-off date, only ads that explicitly call for voting for or against a candidate have to be reported.

The non-profit called One Nation is the most dramatic example of avoidance of this expanded reporting. It is run by a former top aide to Republican Senate leader McConnell and through August it had spent over $23 million running TV ads in competitive Senate races – spending more than any other entity active in Senate races. However, since the Sept. 9th cut-off date for stricter FEC reporting, it has spent only $2 million despite the increasing competitiveness of the Senate races and shrinking time until Election Day. [4]

Overall, the drop-off in activity by dark money groups is reflected in their having paid for 42.5% of the TV ads by outside groups in competitive Senate races through 9/15, but only 11% of ads since then. In the tight Pennsylvania Senate race, dark money sponsorship of ads has dropped from 33% to 9%. In Ohio and Illinois, rates have dropped from 28% and 36%, respectively, to zero.

Reducing activity when it would have to be reported to the FEC helps preserve the secrecy of the groups’ activities. It also helps these non-profit groups claim to the IRS that political activity is not their primary activity, because activity reported to the FEC is clearly political. Some of these group are shifting their activity to on-line ads because these ads are exempt from FEC reporting due to a regulatory loophole.

Anonymous campaign spending is anathema to democracy. All campaign donors should be disclosed so voters can make informed decisions with full knowledge of who is trying to influence their votes and curry favor with candidates. Apparently, our elected officials who are blocking disclosure of donors believe that secrecy allows them to continue to reap the financial support that leads to their election or re-election and the power that comes with it. Given the secrecy, it is impossible for voters and even law enforcement to know what favors elected officials are doing for donors and whether outright corruption is occurring. However, you can be certain that the donors make sure the politicians know of their financial support.

I encourage you to contact your US Representative and Senators to urge them to pass the DISCLOSE Act and ensure full disclosure of all campaign donors.

[1]       Miller, J., 12/11/15, “GOP budget rider takes aim at campaign-finance rules,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/blog/checks/gop-budget-rider-takes-aim-campaign-finance-rules)

[2]       Prupis, N., 10/14/16, “Sen. Warren urges Obama to fire ‘unapologetic’ SEC chief for ‘brazen conduct,’” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/10/14/sen-warren-urges-obama-fire-unapologetic-sec-chief-brazen-conduct)

[3]       Miller, J., 10/28/16, “More corporations embrace disclosure, despite conservative opposition,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/blog/checks/more-corporations-embrace-disclosure-despite-conservative-opposition)

[4]       Balcerzak, A., 10/19/16, “Dark money ads plunged when reporting requirement kicked in,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets blog (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2016/10/dark-money-ads-plunged-when-reporting-requirement-kicked-in/)

CAMPAIGN DONOR SECRECY IS ESCALATING

The disclosure of who is giving money to candidates for public office has long been a basic tenet of our elections. Even with the rise of outside spending, (supposedly) independent of candidates’ campaigns, disclosure of donors was assumed. In the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision (which ruled that wealthy individuals, corporations, and other organizations could engage in unlimited outside spending), the five justices who supported the ruling believed that the independence of the spending and the disclosure of the donors would prevent corruption of candidates who benefitted from the unlimited campaign spending.

However, wealthy individual and corporate campaign donors are typically anxious to hide their identities. This protects them from negative repercussions from, for example, sponsoring TV ads that are typically negative and sometimes outright nasty or untruthful.

As a result, “dark” money spending in campaigns, where the true donors are hidden, is growing dramatically. Dark money in the 2016 elections is up 34% over this point in the 2014 Congressional elections and is 5 times what it was at this point in the last presidential election in 2012. [1] Donor secrecy means there is no accountability, typically for negative or questionably truthful TV ads. It also prevents voters from knowing who is behind the political ads and messages that are trying to influence their votes. This means voters can’t assess the interests and biases of the sponsors of the ads, or even tell if there are conflicts of interest or a potential for corruption.

Large donors have found multiple ways to keep their identities secret. The two main strategies are engaging in political activity through non-profit organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors and laundering money through multiple entities to make it hard (if not impossible) to trace the actual donor. These strategies come on top of the fact that enforcement of existing disclosure laws has been weak at best. The Federal Election Commission (FEC), the primary enforcer of election laws, is hamstrung by the intense partisanship in Washington.

As required by Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations, the non-profit organizations that are being used for political activity maintain that political activity is not their primary purpose. However, for many of them, this fiction can only be maintained because the IRS’s regulations and enforcement are weak. The IRS’s efforts in this area have been undermined by political attacks, including claims that its efforts to control the illegal political use of non-profit groups reflect partisan bias.

The other major strategy for hiding the identities of donors is money laundering. This is accomplished by passing money for political spending through a series of groups, typically non-profits and super PACs. When the final entity that actually engages in political activity (e.g., pays for the TV ads) reports its donors, they are super PACs and non-profits not the actual original donors.

Some of the campaign money laundering is done through “ghost” organizations. These are typically corporations that are established solely for the purpose of channeling money to super PACs. Many of these ghost corporations make large donations, e.g., hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, only days after they are created. Little information is available about them and sometimes they are disbanded shortly after making their donations. Hence, tracing the donors of this money is extremely difficult if not impossible. [2]

Many election law experts consider the use of ghost organizations a violation of the long-standing federal ban on straw donors, i.e., one person giving money to another person or entity to use to make a political contribution. However, with the regulatory agencies, particularly the FEC, politically deadlocked, enforcement and even investigation of such activity is lacking.

The explosion of campaign spending where donors are secret is particularly insidious and damaging to democracy. Voters are not be able to consider the credibility and motives of the funders behind these efforts to sway their votes. Moreover, the megaphone that unlimited outside money provides to wealthy corporations and individuals can drown out other voices that provide important information to voters.

Unlimited election spending by a tiny slice of our society, coupled with secrecy about who is paying for the messages being disseminated, means that voters will receive skewed information and will be unable to evaluate its credibility. Furthermore, they may be discouraged from voting because the bulk of these messages tend to be negative messages that attack the quality of candidates and the effectiveness of our government.

To support well informed voting, full disclosure of all donors to campaign spending is essential. Furthermore, unlimited spending by wealthy interests in our elections undermines the basic principle of democracy – that government is of, by, and for all the people.

My next post will provide more information on how wealthy campaign donors are maintaining their secrecy and what you can do about it.

[1]       OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 10/22/16, “Top election spenders: Who are the biggest dark money spenders?” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/dark-money/top-election-spenders)

[2]       Gold, M. & Narayanswamy, A., 3/18/16, “How ‘ghost corporations’ are funding the 2016 election,” The Washington Post

HOW OUR ELECTIONS ARE RIGGED

Donald Trump has been claiming that our elections are rigged. He’s right. They are rigged – but not in the manner he suggests. Our elections are rigged to benefit wealthy interests and Republicans in three ways:

  1. Campaign finance laws allow unlimited and even secret spending by wealthy interests,
  2. States have made voting more difficult for low-income citizens, minorities, students, and some elders, and
  3. Republicans have gerrymandered Congressional Districts and state legislative districts to their benefit.

I’ve covered the first topic in a recent post (and other posts under the Campaigns category), so I’ll address the other two topics here.

Making voting more difficult: 20 states have put new laws making voting more difficult in place since 2010. The new laws range from photo ID requirements to reductions in early voting. These new laws are part of a broad effort to curtail voting by Democratic-leaning groups and individuals. [1] State lawmakers spanning almost all states have introduced hundreds of measures that would make it harder to vote. This is part of a strategic plan by conservatives and Republicans to shift election results. The effort has been spearheaded by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing and corporate-funded organization that develops templates for state legislation, including ones on voter suppression. [2] In a democracy we should be encouraging voting, not suppressing it!

Laws requiring specific types of IDs to vote are a key tactic. The supposed rationale for the voter ID laws has been to prevent voter fraud. However, every credible source that has examined this has documented that voter fraud is non-existent. In addition, to requiring IDs to vote, some states have made it hard or expensive to get an acceptable ID. For example, Texas does not allow the use of a student ID (but a firearm ID card is acceptable). These laws can be quite effective in suppressing voting. Wisconsin’s voter ID law is estimated to have kept 300,000 citizens from voting. [3]

In addition to changes in law, there are numerous examples of other efforts to suppress voting. Some states have reduced the number of polling places in minority neighborhoods, resulting in long waiting lines that prevent some people from voting. This was evident in Arizona’s September primary elections where the number of polling places in Latino neighborhoods was greatly reduced and created 5-hour waiting lines. North Carolina has reduced the number of hours and locations for early voting for the November 8th election. [4]

Another tactic has been to purge names from lists of registered voters, thereby preventing people from voting when they show up at the polls. This tactic is used in ways that target Democratic voters, as it was in Florida before the Bush vs. Gore election in 2000. So, it’s not a new technique, but it continues to be used today. Most recently, it has surfaced in multiple counties in North Carolina. [5] In Ohio, the Secretary of State is being sued for having improperly purged 2 million voters from the voting lists.

Trump has repeatedly talked about having “poll monitors” in certain (minority) areas. His “Vote Protectors” effort reportedly plans to send volunteers to monitor polling places in nine cities with high minority populations. The group is creating official-looking ID badges for its volunteers to wear and they plan to videotape voters. Using volunteer “poll monitors” is an old tactic but election experts say it does intimidate voters and keeps them from voting. [6]

Gerrymandering: Republicans and corporate America engaged in a very concerted effort to gain control of state redistricting efforts that followed the 2010 Census. They created the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) and raised $30 million to fund it. State legislatures typically redraw district lines based on new Census data every ten years. So, in 2010, REDMAP’s creators succeeded in taking control of legislatures in 20 states. They then used this control of the redistricting process to gerrymander state legislative districts and the 193 Congressional districts in those states (out of 435 nationwide) to favor Republicans. While gerrymandering of districts is not a new phenomenon, they took it to new levels of aggressiveness, aided by computer mapping technology not previously available. [7]

Their gerrymandering significantly skewed results for the US House of Representatives in 2012. For example, in Pennsylvania, Democratic House candidates statewide had 100,000 more votes than Republicans, but Republicans won 13 House seats to the Democrats’ 5. In Michigan, Democrats won 240,000 more votes overall, but only 5 House seats to 9 for Republicans. In Ohio, Republicans got 52% of the overall vote, but 12 of 16 House seats. And so forth. This was accomplished by designing districts that Republicans could win comfortably but with a relatively small margin, while leaving a few districts where Democrats would win overwhelmingly. In other words, they crammed as many Democrats as possible into as few districts as possible. The result was that, despite President Obama’s overwhelming 2012 Democratic national victory, Republicans had a 234 to 201 advantage in the House of Representatives – even though Democratic House candidates nationwide garnered 1.7 million more votes than Republicans.

To fix this, the redistricting process should be performed by a non-partisan redistricting commission so that election results fairly reflect voters’ overall preferences. Eight states have already done this: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington. The others need to follow suit.

To stop targeted voter suppression efforts, key provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that were rendered unenforceable by a 5 to 4 Supreme Court vote in 2013 need to be reinstated. These would prevent states from enacting discriminatory voting laws and practices, which the VRA did quite effectively before the Supreme Court’s ruling.

[1]       Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 10/29/16, “New Voting Restrictions in Place for 2016 Presidential Election,” New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/voting-restrictions-first-time-2016)

[2]       Center for Media and Democracy, retrieved 10/29/16, “ALEC exposed,” (http://www.alecexposed.org/wiki/ALEC_Exposed)

[3]       Fitrakis, R.J., & Wasserman, H., Fall 2016, “War on the dispossessed,” Justice Rising, Alliance for Democracy (http://www.thealliancefordemocracy.org/pdf/AfDJR6404.pdf)

[4]       Pitney, N., 10/26/16, “This is what actual voter suppression looks like, and it’s appalling,” The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/voter-suppression-2016_us_581028c2e4b02b1d9e63bcd2)

[5]       Berman, A., 10/27/16, “North Carolina Republicans tried to disenfranchise a 100-year-old African-American woman,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/north-carolina-republicans-tried-to-disenfranchise-a-100-year-old-african-american-woman/)

[6]       Wilkie, C., 10/25/16, “Trump loyalists planned voter intimidation using fake id badges, fake exit polling — until Huffpost asked them about it,” The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/vote-protectors-voter-intimidation_us_580e4e63e4b0a03911ee03bc?section=us_politics)

[7]       Tarbell, J., Fall 2016, “Gerrymandering: The civil war over public policy,” Justice Rising, Alliance for Democracy (http://www.thealliancefordemocracy.org/pdf/AfDJR6405.pdf)

UNLIMITED, UNACCOUNTABLE CAMPAIGN SPENDING EXPLODES

Traditionally, campaign spending has been done by a committee set up and overseen by a candidate running for election. A candidate’s campaign committee is governed by state or federal laws depending on the office for which the candidate is running. These committees are required to publicly report donors and the size of contributions is limited. Currently, at the federal level, contributions to candidates’ committees are capped at $2,700 per person per election.

This all began to change 25 years ago when groups and sometimes individuals other than a candidate’s campaign committee started spending money to influence the outcomes of elections. This spending is referred to as “outside spending” or “soft” money because it occurs outside of the candidate’s official campaign committee. It is supposed to be independent of the candidate’s committee and its efforts are not supposed to be coordinated with those of the candidate’s campaign. However, this independence is very questionable in many, if not most, cases. The regulations defining the standard for independence and the enforcement of them have been weak at best. The Federal Election Commission (FEC), the primary regulator of campaign spending, is hamstrung by the intense partisanship in Washington.

The lack of accountability for outside spending has been a major contributor to the growth of negative campaigning. Outside spending is typically used to attack an opponent rather than to support a candidate. The attacks can be nasty and stretch the truth or worse. Because outside spending is technically independent of the candidate, he or she can plausibly claim that it is out of his or her control. Therefore, no one can be effectively held accountable for the content of ads or other material.

Outside spending had been growing relatively modestly until the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that ruled that wealthy individuals, corporations, and other organizations could engage in unlimited outside spending. The five Supreme Court justices who supported this ruling felt that such spending was part of free speech. They believed that the independence of the spending and the disclosure of its sources would prevent the corruption of elected officials who benefited from it. However, there is now significant evidence of collaboration between outside spenders and candidates, as well as evidence of corruption. (See my previous posts on illegal coordination and the corrupting effects of unlimited spending.)

Outside spending has already hit $1 billion in the 2016 federal elections – up from $225 million at this point in the pre-Citizens United 2010 elections. There’s been $621 million in outside money spent on the presidential race, $426 million spent on Senate races, and $187 million spent on House races. [1]

Outside spending now exceeds the spending by candidates’ committees in many of the high profile, tightly contested Congressional races. [2] Outside spending is spreading to state-level elections, which I’ll discuss in a future post.

Super political action committees (super PACs) are the primary vehicle for outside spending. Super PACs have spent $847 million to-date in the 2016 federal elections and they will spend hundreds of millions more by Election Day. There are no limits on the size of contributions they can receive, but they are required to disclose their contributors.

In addition to super PACs, two types of non-profit organizations are used for outside spending because they are not required to disclose their donors. (I’ll discuss donor secrecy in my next post.) One type is business associations like the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Medical Association, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. These groups are referred to as 501(c)(6) organizations because that is the section of the IRS rules that governs them. They may engage in political activities, as long as these activities are not their primary purpose. However, the IRS has not defined “political activity” nor “primary” so some of these organizations easily skirt this limitation. [3]

So far in the 2016 elections, 6 of these business associations have reported $26 million in political spending to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), including almost $25 million spent by the US Chamber of Commerce. The FEC reporting does not represent all the political spending by these groups because only certain kinds of activity are required to be reported, most notably activity, usually ads, that explicitly encourages the election or defeat of a specific candidate.

The second type of non-profit organization that is widely used for political purposes is commonly referred to as a social welfare organization. Examples include the National Rifle Association (NRA), Planned Parenthood, and the Sierra Club. These groups are referred to as 501(c)(4) organizations because that is the section of the IRS rules that governs them. Their primary purpose is supposed to be promoting the social welfare of our society. However, as with business associations, they may engage in political activities, as long as these activities are not their primary purpose. Again, because of the lack of clear regulations, some of these organizations easily skirt this limitation.

So far in the 2016 elections, 95 of these groups have reported $93 million in political spending to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), including $25 million spent by the NRA, the biggest spender among them by far. As with business associations, the FEC reporting does not represent all the political spending by these groups because only certain kinds of activity are required to be reported.

In addition to the significant potential for corruption, outside money is problematic because the unlimited spending it allows gives a megaphone to wealthy corporations and individuals that can drown out other voices that provide important information for voters. For our democracy to function as the founders envisioned it, citizens must vote and be well-informed. Unlimited election spending by a tiny slice of our society means that voters will receive skewed information and may be discouraged from voting because they feel their voices and votes are meaningless.

As a result, a democracy built on the principle of one person, one vote, is fundamentally undermined. All voices should be heard in a relatively balanced manner during election campaigns. Given the constraints of the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decisions, the value and impact of small campaign contributions must be enhanced by matching them with public funds. Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decisions must be overturned and limits established on contributions and spending in our elections.

[1]       OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 10/22/16, “2016 outside spending, by race,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/summ.php?disp=R)

[2]       OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 10/22/16, “Races in which outside spending exceeds candidate spending,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/outvscand.php?cycle=2016)

[3]       OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 10/22/16, “Dark money basics,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/dark-money/basics)

CAMPAIGN SPENDING GROWING BIGGER AND DARKER

Campaign spending on the 2016 presidential and Congressional elections will exceed $7 billion, beating the previous record from 2014 by about $1 billion. This will continue the trend of ever increasing campaign spending.

Unfortunately, the three forums (or “debates”) for the presidential candidates included no meaningful discussion of campaign financing, despite strong and broad-based concern about this issue among the public. For example, across party lines, 78% of the public believes the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen United decision should be overturned because it has allowed unlimited spending on our elections by wealthy individuals, corporations, and other entities. [1]

The big growth in campaign spending is coming from outside groups that are (supposedly) independent of candidates’ campaigns. By the end of August, super PACs had already collected more than $1 billion, which exceeds the $853 million they raised through the whole 2012 election. And additional mountains of money will be contributed before Election Day.

This record amount of campaign funding is increasingly coming from a small number of extremely wealthy individuals and is increasingly being funneled through a small number of super PACs and non-profit groups. It is driven by huge contributions from a handful of donors. Just 10 individuals or couples, who have each contributed between $38 million and $14 million, have contributed a combined total of $200 million. [2]

The top 100 donors have already contributed $558 million for the 2016 elections. The growth in the amount contributed by the top 100 donors in the 6 years since the Citizens United decision (which allowed them to make unlimited contributions) is astounding: from $70 million in 2010 to $380 million in 2012 to $558 already in 2016. [3] In other words, the average contribution of each of the 100 largest donors has grown from $700,000 in 2010 to $5.6 million so far in 2016 with many more dollars expected before Election Day.

Furthermore, a growing portion of this outside money is “dark” money, meaning that the true donors of the funds are kept secret. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been contributed to politically active non-profit organizations that keep their donors’ names secret. (More on this in my next post.)

Huge donations by wealthy donors, which are dominating our elections, are a major contributing factor to voters’ belief that our elections, political system, and policies are rigged in favor of wealthy individuals and corporations.

My next posts will examine the growth of “dark” money where donors’ identities are concealed, efforts to block increased donor disclosure, and the presence of unlimited contributions and dark money in state-level elections.

[1]       Editorial, 10/15/16, “The other campaign madness: Mega-donors,” The New York Times

[2]       Gold, M. & Narayanswamy, A., 10/5/16, “How 10 mega-donors already helped pour a record $1.1 billion into super PACs,” The Washington Post

[3]       Kim, S.R., 10/13/16, “Liberal big money is  pouring into elections,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2016/10/liberal-big-money-is-pouring-into-elections/)

BLUNTING THE IMPACT OF BIG AND SECRET MONEY IN OUR ELECTIONS

Big money and secret money in our election campaigns undermines democracy. They can prevent voters from knowing who, with what interests, is trying to influence their votes. They can also unduly influence the decisions of our elected officials and lead to outright corruption. (See my previous posts here and here for more detail.)

There are two main strategies for blunting the impact of big money and secret money in our elections:

  • Disclosure of campaign contributions and spending in a complete and timely manner, and
  • Matching of voters’ small campaign contributions with public funding, coupled with strict limits on who can contribute and how much can be contributed.

Both of these strategies have been reviewed and approved by the current Supreme Court.

Three-quarters of Americans, including three-quarters of those in each political party, support disclosure of campaign spending. A number of states, including California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, and Montana have strengthened disclosure requirements in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. There are proposals in Congress to enhance disclosure for federal campaigns.

California requires any group spending more than $50,000 in a year on political activities to disclose all donors giving over $1,000. In addition, it requires that political advertisements include the names of top funders. The success of these measures is reflected in the remarkably small increase in secret (aka dark) money in California elections. [1] In Montana, a bipartisan coalition enacted strong transparency laws for campaign spending after large amounts of out-of-state dark money were spent in their elections.

A Brennan Center report [2] identifies key provisions of an effective state campaign spending disclosure law:

  • Require disclosure of all donors by all groups that spend any significant amount of money in campaigns;
  • Require disclosure by organizations that provide substantial funding to groups making significant campaign expenditures;
  • Require disclosure for all political advertising spending in a specified window before an election (e.g., a few months to a year), including issue ads (that don’t explicitly advocate for a vote for or against a candidate);
  • Require up-to-date disclosure frequently, including just before an election and in advertisements themselves;
  • Require disclosure of the individual(s) controlling any group making significant campaign expenditures; and
  • Make penalties for violations substantial but proportional to the severity of the violation.

Disclosure helps voters know who is trying to influence their votes and the election, and lets them take into account the interests of the spenders, although it does not directly affect the funding of campaigns.

Matching voters’ small campaign contributions with public funding makes small contributions more valuable to candidates. Given that the Supreme Court’s decisions (e.g., Citizens United and McCutcheon) do not allow laws limiting campaign contributions outright, this alternative amplifies the voices and influence of small donors. It can also require candidates to voluntarily limit campaign spending and the size of contributions in exchange for the public matching funds.

New York City has had a campaign financing system in place since 1988 that matches small donations with public funding. Currently, it offers a six-to-one match on donations up to $175 by city residents. An ordinary citizens making a donation of $50 or $100 now has the clout of a much larger contribution – $350 or $700, respectively – due to matching public funds. As a result, more people are donating, because their small contributions and voices are amplified. And this leads to higher voter turnout on Election Day. [3]

Candidates’ participation in this contribution matching system is voluntary. In exchange for the public matching funds, candidates agree to abide by limits on overall spending and the size of individual contributions. These limits vary with the office being sought, from Mayor to City Council. In 2013, 92% of NYC’s candidates participated in the public matching funds system. For the candidates who did participate, 61% of their funding came from small donors. Conversely, for the candidates who did not participate, 53% of their funding came from large donors of $1,000 or more. [4]

The system has changed candidates’ attitudes and approach to the voting public. It has muted the importance of large contributions. It has motivated more citizens to run for office and made races more competitive. Candidates spend less time fundraising and can, therefore, be more engaged with and responsive to their constituents.

The states of Maine, Connecticut, and Arizona have similar contribution matching systems in place. Washington, D.C., is considering implementing such a system. There are proposals in Congress that would create a similar system for our national elections.

I encourage you to contact your elected officials and ask them to take action now to blunt the impact of big money and secret money in our elections. Strengthening disclosure of the sources of funding for campaign spending is one step to take. Another is to enact a system for matching voters’ small contributions to candidates with public funding. Both of these would make our elections more democratic and can be done now within the constraints of the Supreme Court’s rulings.

[1]       Lee, C., & Norden, L., 6/25/16, “The secret power behind local elections,” The New York Times

[2]       Lee, C., Valde, K., Brickner, B.T., & Keith, D., 2016, “Secret spending in the states,” The Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/analysis/Secret_Spending_in_the_States.pdf)

[3]       Migally, A., & Liss, S., 2010, “Small donor matching funds: The NYC election experience,” The Brennan Center for Justice (http://www.brennancenter.org/publication/small-donor-matching-funds-nyc-election-experience)

[4]       McElwee, S., 6/23/16, “D.C.’s white donor class: Outsized influence in a diverse city,” Demos (http://www.demos.org/publication/dc%E2%80%99s-white-donor-class-outsized-influence-diverse-city)

SECRET MONEY IN STATE AND LOCAL ELECTIONS FACILITATES CORRUPTION

The growth of secret money in state and local elections means that voters know less and less about who is working to influence their votes and the outcomes of their elections. Secret money is money spent by organizations that do not have to report their funding sources. Therefore, it is referred to as “dark” money. Most of this money is spent by social welfare non-profits (i.e., 501(c)(4) organizations) and trade or industry associations (e.g., the Chamber of Commerce or the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America association, 501(c)(6) organizations). Based on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, these groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on advertising and other campaign activities as long as it is independent of a candidate’s campaign, although the independence of such spending is often very questionable.

As I noted in my previous post, big money may have more impact in state and local elections than in federal ones. For example, a race for school board or a state’s public utilities commission costs much less than a race for federal office and gets much less media coverage. State ballot questions are also frequent targets of dark money spending. In such low-cost, low-information elections, it can be relatively easy to sway voters, particularly in non-partisan elections where party affiliation does not serve as a guidepost for voters.

These elections can have significant financial consequences, often for a narrow but economically significant constituency. A utility commission, for example, makes decisions that can effect energy corporations’ profits and homeowners’ electricity rates. Dark money at the state and local levels frequently comes from corporations and other special interests that have a direct and immediate stake in the outcome of the election, whereas at the federal level the outside spending tends to be more ideologically or party focused.

For less than $100,000, a corporation or wealthy individual can have a significant impact on a state or local election. When there is a significant self-interest at stake, this is a modest business expense. On the other hand, for state or local candidates or community groups, such sums are dauntingly large.

By using dark money for its campaign spending, the corporation or wealthy individual can hide its identity so voters don’t know who is trying to influence their votes or about the self-interested nature of the spending. And a growing portion of the big money in state and local elections is dark money. The ability to significantly affect or even dominate an election with high stakes but without public transparency means significant conflicts of interest can be hidden and outright corruption is facilitated. [1]

The Brennan Center for Justice recently studied outside campaign spending (i.e., spending not by a candidate’s own campaign organization) in six diverse states with almost a fifth of the U.S. population (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, and Massachusetts). [2] It examined dozens of state and local elections in these states. It found that the amount of dark money spent in 2014 was 38 times what was spent in 2006, a rate of increase greater than that for federal elections. It also found that in 2006 76% of the outside spending was fully transparent – that the true identities of the donors was known to voters as they voted. In 2014, only 29% of outside spending was fully transparent.

In Arizona’s 2014 election for two utility commissioners, $3.2 million was spent by dark money groups. This was more than double what all six candidates’ campaigns combined spent and was almost 50 times the amount of dark money spent in the 2012 election. After the election, it was learned that the source of the money was the state’s largest private utility, Arizona Public Service, which didn’t like the state’s requirement that it buy power from homeowners’ solar panels that the homeowners didn’t need. (This is called net metering.) After the candidates the dark money supported were elected, the Commission shifted its stance from actively encouraging homeowner-generated solar power to making it more costly for homeowners.

In Mountain View, CA, a group calling itself the Neighborhood Empowerment Coalition spent $83,000 in dark money in the 2014 city council election. This was more than half of the combined total of what all nine candidates’ campaigns spent. Land use and housing policy were prominent issues in the election in this community where property values and rents have soared. After the election, the voters learned that the coalition was funded by a PAC linked to the country’s largest property owners association and its goal was to prevent the establishment of rent control. The newly elected councilors did not enact rent control.

In the Utah attorney general’s race in 2012, after the election it was learned that an aide to the winner had arranged for payday lenders to fund $450,000 in dark money advertising in exchange for a promise to shield them from consumer protection laws. The attorney general resigned after less than a year in office due to this and other revelations.

Compounding the problem of dark money is the recent growth of “gray” money. This is money spent by organizations such as Political Action Committees (PACs) that are required to disclose their donors, but where the identities of the true donors are hidden. PACs can receive donations from other PACs or organizations and sometimes these organizations are set up to obscure identification of the original donor. Donations can pass through a succession of multiple organizations to obfuscate the true source. This is political money laundering. Furthermore, some of these donor organizations may be “dark” organizations that do not have to disclose their donors. Donations from dark organizations to PACs have grown from less than $200,000 in 2006 to $9.2 million in 2014 in the six states studied by the Brennan Center. Gray money grew from 15% of all outside spending in 2006 to 59% in 2014. [3]

The impact of big money and dark money in state and local elections is undermining democracy by allowing special interests to impact election outcomes and to do so secretly. The potential for outright corruption is clear.

In my next post, I will share some effective steps that can be taken now to address the problems of big money and dark money in state and local elections; ones that can be taken within the constraints of current Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Citizens United and McCutcheon).

[1]       Lee, C., & Norden, L., 6/25/16, “The secret power behind local elections,” The New York Times

[2]       Lee, C., Valde, K., Brickner, B.T., & Keith, D., 2016, “Secret spending in the states,” The Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/analysis/Secret_Spending_in_the_States.pdf)

[3]       Lee, C., Valde, K., Brickner, B.T., & Keith, D., 2016, see above

BIG MONEY, BIG IMPACT IN STATE AND LOCAL ELECTIONS

Big money may have a bigger effect on state and local elections than federal ones. Most of my past posts on campaign finance have focused on spending on races for federal offices (here, here, here, and here). However, state and local races are less expensive and get less media attention, so some big money can have a really big impact. I have written about this before (here). Here are a couple more examples of big money’s role at the state and local level.

Missouri is one of the few states with no limits on campaign contributions directly to candidates. There are four candidates in the Republican primary for Governor. Each of the four has received over $1 million from a single source. One campaign has received almost $5 million from the candidate’s own fortune. In two cases, an individual or family (other than the candidate) has given a million or more to the gubernatorial candidate while also giving millions more to other candidates or political action committees (PACs). [1]

This big money is drowning out the voices of the average voter. It creates conflicts of interest for the candidate who is elected as these large donors have interests that are affected by policy decisions. One of the Missouri million-dollar donors is a strong advocate for repealing all Missouri taxes. He would clearly disproportionately benefit from steps in that direction while the average Missouri resident would suffer the loss of the government’s ability to support infrastructure and programming. Another of the million-dollar donors is a strong opponent of unions. Policies that weaken unions would benefit him as a business owner while hurting workers.

In the Washington, D.C., mayor’s race, the amounts aren’t as dramatic, but campaign donors of $1,000 or more are providing the bulk of campaign money. These large donors are not representative of the electorate; they are disproportionately white and male, and, of course, rich. Overall, for the three candidates in the 2014 race, two-thirds of all the money raised came from donors giving $1,000 or more. Less than 2% came from donors giving $50 or less – an amount that might be affordable for the average voter. [2]

While only 37% of D.C.’s population is white, 62% of donors to the mayoral race were white. In terms of gender, 69% of those giving more than $1,000 were male, although 54% of D.C.’s adults are women.

After the election, the winner created a PAC that took advantage of a loophole in election laws that allowed unlimited donations in non-election years. This Mayor’s PAC took in many $10,000 contributions, many from those with interests in policy and contracting decisions made by the city. An investigation into the PAC found that 11 of its largest donors received $70 million in city contracts.

Big campaign contributions by wealthy donors result in decisions and policies that disproportionately favor the white, male, wealthy, donor class. For example, Washington, D.C., has enacted a series of tax cuts, including a cut in the estate tax, that will largely benefit the wealthy, despite the city’s high poverty rate (18%) and high income inequality. The city also recently announced it will spend $55 million to build a new practice facility for the Washington Wizards basketball team. The wealthy team owner will contribute only $5 million to construction costs and an additional $10 million for community benefits. The city also gave $60 million in tax breaks to a consulting company to keep it from moving to Virginia. The company promised to hire 1,000 D.C. residents, but these jobs likely would have gone to D.C. residents in any case.

Big money is invading state and local elections as well as federal elections. It can have greater effects on the elections at the state and local levels due to smaller campaign spending and less media coverage. And its effects on government decisions and policies can be more immediate and easier to identify.

Subsequent posts will look at the invasion of secret money (where the true donor is obscured) into state and local campaigns. They will also present ways to address the problems of big and secret money in our elections within the constraints of current Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Citizens United and McCutcheon).

[1]       Miller, J., 7/20/16, “This is what happens when a state has no contribution limits,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/blog/checks/what-happens-when-state-has-no-contribution-limits)

[2]       McElwee, S., 6/23/16, “D.C.’s white donor class: Outsized influence in a diverse city,” Demos (http://www.demos.org/publication/dc%E2%80%99s-white-donor-class-outsized-influence-diverse-city)

MORE EFFECTS OF MONOPOLY POWER AND CRONY CAPITALISM

Huge corporations with monopolistic economic power not only affect economic outcomes, but also political and policy outcomes. As my previous post described, economically, corporate power results in higher prices, lower quality service, depressed wages, fewer jobs, increased profits, higher CEO pay, and a redistribution of income upward to big corporations, their executives, and big shareholders.

Politically, the concentration of power in huge corporations distorts public policies. Examples of policies that benefit large corporations and their wealthy CEOs and investors – to the detriment of the rest of us – include:

  • Special tax breaks and loopholes for both big corporations and wealthy individuals;
  • Bankruptcy laws that provide relief for corporations but not for distressed homeowners, student loan recipients, or credit card debtors;
  • Lack of restraints on corporations amassing power but many hurdles for workers trying to assert bargaining power through unions; and
  • Trade deals that protect the profits, intellectual property, and assets of big corporations but not the jobs and incomes of American workers, nor the environment and the safety of our food.

In addition, intellectual property laws here in the U.S. mean that we pay more for drugs than the citizens of any other developed nation. That’s partly because it’s perfectly legal in the U.S. (but not in most other nations) for the maker of a brand-name drug to pay generic drug makers to delay introducing their cheaper equivalents when the patent on the brand-name drug expires. This costs American consumers an estimated $3.5 billion a year – a hidden upward redistribution of our incomes to Pfizer, Merck, and other big pharmaceutical corporations, their executives, and major shareholders. [1]

Wealthy corporations and individuals distort public policies to their benefit through lobbying, the revolving door of personnel, and corruption of our elections through hundreds of millions of dollars of campaign spending. They obtain public policies that support their interests by using state governments to preempt or nullify local laws or initiatives, such as local public internet access or local minimum wage laws. [2] They also use the federal government to preempt state laws as they are trying to do with GMO food labeling. They have passed federal laws that ban federal regulation of fracking, for example, or that ban Medicare from negotiating drug prices with manufacturers (despite the fact that private insurers, the Veterans Administration, and most countries’ health care systems do this). And they use the courts to create corporate “rights” that are used to overturn local, state, and federal laws and regulations, such as limitations on corporate spending on elections.

In terms of campaign spending, the super wealthy account for a growing share of both Republicans’ and Democrats’ campaign funds. In the 1980 presidential election, the richest 0.01% (1 out of every 10,000 Americans or roughly 23,000 people) gave 10% ($10 out of every $100) of total campaign contributions. In 2012, the richest 0.01% of Americans (now 32,000 people due to population growth) accounted for 40% ($40 out of every $100) of all campaign contributions. So, whose voices do you think our elected officials are listening to when they make policy decisions?

If this weren’t bad enough, the exploding outside spending on our elections (i.e., outside of candidates’ campaigns as described in the previous paragraph), which is supposedly independent of candidates’ campaigns, is almost entirely funded by wealthy individuals and big corporations. Furthermore, they can make unlimited “independent expenditures” while their direct contributions to candidates are quite limited. But the candidates know who is paying for the “independent” spending, so these voices are further amplified.

This campaign spending by wealthy individuals and corporations affects who runs for office, shifts the results of elections, and affects the decisions of elected officials. This corrupts the election process and the policy making of our elected officials. The result is not government of, by, and for all the people, but policies favoring the wealthy and their corporations.

Further adding to the influence of big corporations is the revolving door of personnel. Many government regulators, and some members of Congress, come from the industries they oversee in their official, governmental duties. Some Wall Street firms actually pay big bonuses to employees who take jobs in the agencies, such as the Treasury Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), that regulate and oversee the banking and financial services industries.

On the other end, when members of Congress or other government employees leave, they often go to work in the industries they oversaw or had contact with when they were in government. A significant number go back to work for the employer they left when they took their government job. Knowing that a well-paying job in the private sector is waiting for you when you leave your government job certainly would seem to present a conflict of interest and might influence decisions made while working in government.

Some members of Congress and other government employees leave, not for jobs in industries they oversaw, but to lobby their previous colleagues on behalf of industries they oversaw or with which they had contact. In the 1970s, only about 3% of departing members of Congress went on to become lobbyists. In recent years, half (50%) of all departing senators and 42% of retiring representatives have done so. This isn’t because recent retirees have fewer qualms about making money off their government contacts. It’s because the financial rewards of lobbying have become much greater as our giant corporations spend more and more money on lobbyists in their efforts to influence public policies. [3]

This is crony capitalism and it has led to huge corporations with significant market and political power. As my previous post described, America only has four big airlines, three big health insurance companies, four big cable and internet conglomerates, and six too-big-to-fail banks that are getting bigger not smaller. Other examples of huge corporations and limited competition are that just two companies sell 70% of the countless toothpaste brands, there are only five big book publishers, and firms like Walmart, Google, and Amazon use their market power to squeeze out competitors and exercise significant power over suppliers. Big technology companies are driving small competitors out of business and massive conglomerates control our food, cosmetics, and drug industries.

Huge corporations with monopolistic power are not healthy for our economy or our democracy. We need to reassert that government policies and the rules of our economy should be of, by, and for the people, not of, by, and for the economic elite. Otherwise, we become a plutocracy, oligarchy, or corporatocracy – they’re pretty interchangeable, take your pick.

[1]       Reich, R., 11/1/15, “The Rigging of the American Market” (http://robertreich.org/post/132363519655)

[2]       Linzey, T., 1/21/16, “Slaves in all but name: Abolishing the corporate state in rural communities,” In These Times (http://inthesetimes.com/rural-america/entry/18792/community-rights-and-corporate-slavery)

[3]       Reich, R., 6/19/16, “A big idea for Hillary,” (http://robertreich.org/post/146169929945)

SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEMS ELECTIONS CREATE FOR JUDGES

State court judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial justice due to growing campaign spending, including the rapid increase in unlimited spending by outside groups and individuals.

There are two policy solutions to this problem:

  1. Appoint judges using a good, non-partisan process with reasonably long or lifetime terms (with a mandatory retirement provision); or
  2. Establish partial public financing and effective regulation of judges’ elections including:
    • Public financing in exchange for limits on spending and the size of contributions;
    • Regulation and disclosure of outside, truly independent spending; and
    • Strong conflict of interest and recusal standards for judges.

In 2009, Wisconsin passed the Impartial Justice bill, creating a partial public financing system for judicial elections. It provided up to $400,000 of public financing for supreme court candidates. To qualify, judicial candidates had to raise $5,000 to $15,000 in donations ranging from $5 to $100. They then received $100,000 for the primary election and $300,000 for the general election. [1]

If any opponent declined public financing and outspent them, candidates using the public financing system were eligible for up to $300,000 of additional public funding for the primary and $900,000 more for the general election. This additional funding would allow them to be competitive with the candidate opting out of the public financing system who, therefore, could spend unlimited amounts of money on the campaign. The law also reduced contribution limits for candidates who opted out of public financing from $10,000 to $1,000.

Unfortunately, the Wisconsin public financing system was defunded in 2011 as part of an intense, partisan battle over election laws, including voter ID requirements.

North Carolina passed a model campaign financing law for judicial elections in 2002. It provided candidates for the supreme court and the court of appeals with the option of partial public financing if they agreed to strict fundraising and spending limits. Candidates who did not participate in the public financing were limited to $1,000 contributions from individuals. Contributions from corporations were prohibited. Unfortunately, this campaign finance law was repealed recently in a partisan battle over voting rights and voter ID laws.

New Mexico in 2007 and West Virginia in 2013 created voluntary systems of partial public financing for judicial candidates. Under these public financing systems, candidates agree to limit their spending and to take limited funds from sources other than the public financing system.

A good appointment process is probably the best solution for avoiding the corrupting effects of large contributions and expensive campaigns. However, this may not be politically feasible in some states. Voters and wealthy campaign supporters may oppose moving from elections to appointments because of their loss of influence and power.

For elected judges, as for other elected officials, a system for financing campaigns is needed that allows candidates to effectively communicate with voters while avoiding the corrupting effects of large contributions and expensive campaigns. Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on campaign spending and free speech, currently the only solution is a public financing system. In such a system, a candidate agrees to limit spending and the size of contributions in exchange for partial public funding of campaign expenses.

A fair and impartial justice system is the bedrock of our democracy. If judges are elected, they need to serve the greater good of the public and not be beholden to wealthy special interests. Therefore, nowhere is it more important than in judicial elections to have partial public financing systems that limit spending and the size of contributions.

[1]       National Center for State Courts, 2016, “Judicial Campaigns and Elections” (http://www.judicialselection.us/)

HOW JUDICIAL ELECTIONS AFFECT CRIMINAL SENTENCING

My previous post outlined the challenges to the impartiality and integrity of state judges due to the growing spending on judicial elections. It highlighted civil cases where campaign money has the potential to influence (or appear to influence) judges’ decisions and to create conflicts of interest.

In criminal cases, there is statistical evidence that the pressures of election campaigns and negative ads affect judicial decision-making. When facing imminent re-election, judges are more likely to impose longer sentences, affirm death sentences, and change jury sentences of life in prison to death sentences.

As spending has grown in judicial elections, the use of television advertising has increased dramatically. A study of 15 years of television ads in state supreme court elections found that increasingly the ads focused on the candidate’s handling of criminal cases. In 2013-14, a record 56% of ads either attacked candidates for being “soft on crime” or touted them as being “tough on crime.” These types of ads tend to focus voters’ attention on criminal cases, often in a misleading, overly simplified, and emotional way. [1] The need for judges to be viewed as “tough on crime” to win an election has contributed to the problems of over-incarceration and disproportionately harsh sentencing of Blacks and Hispanics.

The study also compared judicial decisions of elected and non-elected (i.e., appointed) judges. And it looked at judges’ decisions in terms of their proximity to an election. It found that:

  • Appointed judges reversed death sentences roughly twice as often (26% of the time) as judges who ran in an election. Judges with contested elections reversed death sentences only 11% of the time and judges with uncontested elections reversed them 15% of the time.
  • In Alabama, judges were more likely to override jury sentences of life in prison and instead impose a death sentence in election years.
  • In Pennsylvania and Washington, judges sentenced those convicted of serious felonies to longer sentences when they were closer to an election.
  • The greater the use of TV ads in an election, the less likely judges were to rule in favor of a criminal defendant.

In summary, judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial criminal justice that is free from the influence of elections and campaign ads. The rapid increase in spending on judicial campaigns, including the unlimited spending by outside groups and individuals, has exacerbated the challenges to judicial fairness and integrity.

[1]       Berry, K., 12/2/15, “How judicial elections impact criminal cases,” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/how-judicial-elections-impact-criminal-cases)

IS JUSTICE FOR SALE IN STATE COURTS?

There is widespread recognition that a fair and impartial judiciary is essential to the maintenance of public trust and confidence in our court system and our democracy. In 39 states, at least some judges are elected; in aggregate, 87% of state judges nationwide run in elections. (In some states and for the federal judiciary, judges are appointed and not elected.)

The impartiality and integrity of our state courts is critical because they handle the vast majority of criminal and civil cases in the U.S. For example, 94% of felony convictions occur in state courts, including 99% of rape cases and 98% of murder cases.

The rapidly growing spending on judicial campaigns brings with it the potential for money to influence (or appear to influence) judges’ decisions and to create conflicts of interest. Elected judges are routinely raising campaign funds from and benefiting from spending by those who will appear before them in court as lawyers or parties in a case.

Between 2000 and 2009, over $200 million was spent on elections for state supreme court justices in 22 states. This was more than double the $83 million spent in the previous decade. This growth in spending appears to be accelerating and has been exacerbated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United and related decisions, which allow unlimited contributions to and spending by supposedly independent groups, including corporations.

As with other elected offices, spending by outside, supposedly independent groups is growing in judicial races. Furthermore, the frequency of very large contributions and high levels of spending by a small number of wealthy individuals and organizations is increasing. For example, in the 29 most expensive judicial elections in the decade from 2000 to 2009, the top five spenders averaged $473,000 while all others averaged $850. [1] As with other races, much of the outside spending is on negative advertising. Negative advertising tends to undermine trust in elected officials and to reduce voter turnout. Outside spending also fuels an arms race with special interests spending more and more to out-spend competing interests.

As a result, there is the appearance, if not the actuality, that campaign money is influencing elected judges’ actions. As retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “In too many states, judicial elections are becoming political prize fights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the Constitution.” [2] For example, in Alabama, the primary sources of campaign funds for supreme court candidates have been businesses and trial lawyers as they battle each other over tort reform. In 2006, candidates for the chief justice position raised $8.2 million. (Tort reform refers to changes in the laws governing the ability of victims to get court-ordered compensation for damages or personal injury.)

My previous post highlighted a case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court where a 4 to 2 decision found that Governor Walker and his campaign had not engaged in illegal coordination with two supposedly independent business groups that spent millions of dollars supporting his campaign. Two justices, who participated and voted with the majority, had been asked to recuse themselves because the two groups whose support of Walker was at issue had also spent millions of dollars on their campaigns. They refused to recuse themselves and this case is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

West Virginia is another state where business interests are spending millions of dollars on judges’ elections and where a state supreme court justice refused to recuse himself in a case where he had a conflict of interest. The case is Caperton vs. Massey where a jury verdict that had ordered Massey Energy Co. to pay $50 million was being appealed. Massey’s CEO, Don Blankenship, knowing the case was going to the court, spent $3 million supporting the election of Justice Brent Benjamin in 2004. This was over 60% of the total spending on Benjamin’s campaign. After he won the election, he was one of the majority votes in a 3 to 2 decision that overturned the $50 million award against Massey. He refused to recuse himself. This was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and it ruled in June, 2009, that Justice Benjamin had to recuse himself because of the “serious risk of actual bias.” [3]

In May 2016, Justice Benjamin was up for re-election. Outside groups spent $3 million in the election. The biggest spender, at $2 million, was the Washington, D.C., based Republican State Leadership Committee, despite the fact that the election was supposedly non-partisan. It spent its money in support of the eventual winner, Beth Walker, who won with 39.5% of the vote in a five-person election. In addition, various outside business groups spent almost $500,000 supporting her. This $2.5 million in outside spending was many times the $200,000 she raised for her campaign and still many times what she may have spent including $500,000 in loans from her husband. [4]

In summary, judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial justice that is free from the influence of special interests and partisan pressures. A major driver of the threat to judicial integrity is growing campaign spending, including the rapid increase in unlimited spending by outside groups and individuals.

My next post will take a look at the effects of judicial elections on criminal cases. After that, I will present some policy solutions to the problem of elections and campaign financing that can undermine a fair and impartial judiciary.

[1]       Sample, J., Skaggs, A., Blitzer, J., & Casey, L., 2010, “The new politics of judicial elections 2000-2009,” Justice at Stake (http://www.justiceatstake.org/media/cms/JASNPJEDecadeONLINE_8E7FD3FEB83E3.pdf)

[2]       Justice at Stake, 2016, “Money & Elections,” Justice at Stake (http://www.justiceatstake.org/issues/state_court_issues/money-and-elections/)

[3]       Brennan Center for Justice, 6/8/09, “Supreme Court reverses decision in Caperton vs. Massey,” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/legal-work/caperton-v-massey)

[4]       Brennan Center for Justice, 5/6/16, “Outside spending in West Virginia Supreme Court race nears $3 million,” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/press-release/outside-spending-west-virginia-supreme-court-race-nears-3-million)

ILLEGAL COORDINATION BETWEEN CANDIDATES AND “INDEPENDENT” CAMPAIGN SPENDING

As I described in my last post, one of the Supreme Court’s justifications for its decisions allowing unlimited spending by outside groups in our elections was that their spending would be independent of any candidate’s campaign. Therefore, as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the Citizens United decision, such expenditures “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” [1]

However, in reality, many outside groups spending large sums of money on our elections are not independent but coordinate their activities with candidates and their campaigns. One of the most blatant and well-documented examples of coordination between a candidate and outside groups is that of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and two non-profit, “social welfare,” 501(c)(4) groups: the Wisconsin Club for Growth and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce group. [2]

In 2012, when Governor Walker was facing a recall election, he worked closely with these two organizations to raise millions of dollars that were spent supporting his re-election and attacking his opponent. He and his staff advised donors that contributions to these groups would not be disclosed and that corporate contributions were welcome. This bypassed Wisconsin’s laws requiring disclosure of campaign donors and prohibiting corporate donations.

Walker knew where financial support for his re-election was coming from but the public did not. So he rewarded his secret supporters. For example, his top legislative priority after he won the election was passing a mining bill drafted by an out-of-state mining corporation, Gogebic Taconite. It had secretly contributed $700,000 to the Wisconsin Club for Growth. Also after the election, Menard Hardware got a $1.8 million tax credit from an economic development agency that Governor Walker chaired. Its CEO had secretly given $1.5 million to the Wisconsin Club for Growth at Walker’s behest.

These donations came to light two years later in an investigation into allegations of coordination between Walker’s campaign and these two, supposedly independent, outside groups. The investigation was led by both Republican and Democratic prosecutors, as well as Wisconsin’s non-partisan elections board.

Eventually, Walker and his campaign challenged the investigation in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. It ruled 4 – 2 in their favor, stopping the investigation. Overturning years of precedent, it ruled that the coordination between Walker’s campaign and the two outside groups was constitutionally protected as long as the outside groups didn’t explicitly call for the election or defeat of a candidate.

However, that’s not the end of the story, but rather the beginning of a related one. The four justices who voted to declare the coordination legal, had themselves received a combined $10 million of support in their elections from none other than the Wisconsin Club for Growth and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce group. In most cases, these two groups had spent more on the judges’ elections than the candidates themselves. For example, in 2011, the two groups spent nearly $3.7 million supporting Justice David Prosser’s election. This was five times as much as the candidate’s campaign spent and he ended up winning by just 7,000 votes (out of 1.5 million cast or less than 0.5%: 50.17% to 49.70%). In 2008, the two groups spent $2.75 million in support of Justice Michael Gableman, over six times what the candidate’s campaign spent. He won by just 20,000 votes (out of 740,000 votes cast or less than 3%: 51.2% to 48.5%). The spending by these two outside groups very likely had a decisive effect on these elections.

When the special prosecutor defending the investigation into the two groups’ coordination with the Walker campaign asked Justices Gableman and Prosser to recuse themselves because of their conflict of interest, they refused to do so. As a result, these justices not only legalized what Governor Walker had done, but also legalized the actions of these deep-pocketed supporters of their elections and coordination with these groups in their own campaigns. [3]

Their decision is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. It will be interesting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court will take this opportunity to reconsider their Citizens United decision in light of what has happened in its aftermath. The evidence clearly contradicts their rationale for allowing unlimited contributions and spending by outside groups: that it would be independent of candidates’ campaigns and would not give rise to even the appearance of corruption. There has been coordination among outside groups and candidates’ campaigns, followed by blatant corruption of public decision-making. Will the U.S. Supreme Court, therefore, clarify what is required for outside groups to operate truly independently of any candidate’s campaign? Will it recognize the clear potential for corruption and allow limits on contributions and spending? Hopefully, it will acknowledge the realities of our election campaigns and take corrective action.

[1]       Carney, E.N., 12/10/15, “Super PAC debate spotlights illegal coordination,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/super-pac-debate-spotlights-illegal-coordination)

[2]       Fischer, B., 5/19/16, “Will SCOTUS confront the results of Citizens United,” Moyers & Company (http://billmoyers.com/story/confronting-citizens-united/)

[3]       Fischer, B., 5/19/16, see above

UNLIMITED DONATIONS AND SPENDING ARE CORRUPTING OUR ELECTIONS

The unlimited donations to and spending by Super PACs and non-profit “social welfare” groups [aka 501(c)(4)s] allowed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United and other decisions have changed the whole pattern of funding for our presidential campaigns.

These supposedly independent, “outside” entities are the dominant players in this election. Every one of the major presidential candidates except Bernie Sanders has one or more of these unconstrained groups advocating for his or her election. One study found that more than 80% of the advertising in the Republican presidential primary race was paid for by outside entities – not by the candidates’ own campaign committees. [1] Campaign funding from Super PACs and 501(c)(4)s is rapidly trickling down to US Senate and House races, to state-level elections, and even to Mayoral elections.

As of February, $607 million has been given to Super PACs. Of that huge sum, $248 million (41%) has come from just 50 mega-donors, their families, and their privately held companies. This is more money than the $161 million donated by the 1 million contributors to Hillary Clinton’s campaign committee. While donations to Super PACs and 501(c)(4) non-profit groups are unlimited in amount and source, donations to candidates’ campaign committees are limited to $2,700 per election and corporate money is prohibited. [2]

The Supreme Court justified its Citizens United decision by asserting that the unlimited spending of these outside groups would be independent of candidates’ campaigns and that donors and spending would be disclosed so that voters would know who was trying to affect their votes. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in Citizens United: “By definition, an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not in coordination with a candidate.” Because the expenditures are independent, Kennedy concluded, they “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” [3]

These justifications for allowing unlimited spending have now been shown by reality to be wrong. Meaningful disclosure is not occurring. Super PACs’ disclosures of donors are infrequent and often not timely in terms of when an election is occurring. Furthermore, large donors have engaged in money laundering to hide the true source of their donations. They donate via a corporation or other entity that does not disclose its sources of funding and sometimes is set up for the express purpose of funneling political contributions and then disbanded once the election is over. The non-profit 501(c)(4) organizations do not have to disclose donors and hence are referred to as “dark money” groups. Money is often shuffled among these groups to hide its true source.

It is becoming increasingly well documented – although it has been suspected from the beginning – that many Super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups do NOT operate independently of the candidates and their campaign committees. Over 100 of the Super PACs, including many of the biggest ones, are single candidate Super PACs. This means they are raising and spending money on behalf of one and only one candidate. Roughly 80% of the money raised by Super PACs in this election cycle has gone to single candidate Super PACs. These Super PACs are effectively shadow campaigns. They run ads, stage events, sell candidate-branded merchandise, and even handle press inquiries. They are often run by close aides (or former aides) of the candidate.

In many cases, the candidate attends the fundraisers for the Super PAC and in some cases, the candidate launches the Super PAC and directly helps it raise money before officially becoming a candidate. Jeb Bush, former Governor of FL and Republican presidential candidate in 2016, did this with his Right to Rise Super PAC. It raised more than $100 million that was used to support his presidential campaign once he became an official candidate. [4]

One of the most blatant and well-documented cases of coordination between a candidate and outside groups is that of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and two non-profit, 501(c)(4) groups: the Wisconsin Club for Growth and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce group. [5] I’ll describe this example of coordination in my next post.

[1]       Carney, E.N., 12/17/15, “Democracy prospect: Omnibus battles spotlight political money fault lines,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/democracy-prospect-omnibus-battles-spotlight-political-money-fault-lines)

[2]       Gold, M., & Narayanswamy, A., 4/17/16, “41% of Super PAC money coming from 50 donors,” The Boston Globe

[3]       Carney, E.N., 12/10/15, “Super PAC debate spotlights illegal coordination,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/super-pac-debate-spotlights-illegal-coordination)

[4]       Carney, E.N., 12/10/15, see above

[5]       Fischer, B., 5/19/16, “Will SCOTUS confront the results of Citizens United,” Moyers & Company (http://billmoyers.com/story/confronting-citizens-united/)

DEMOCRACY IS AWAKENING, BUT NOT IN THE CORPORATE MEDIA

One of the goals of this blog is to provide information on policy and politics that the mainstream corporate media fails to provide. One of the most blatant examples of news ignored by the corporate media is last month’s Democracy Awakening protests.

The Democracy Awakening protests were undertaken to highlight the issues of money in politics and abridgements of voting rights. Starting on April 2 under the banner of Democracy Spring (http://www.democracyspring.org/), over 100 people marched the 140 miles from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, where our democracy was founded, to Washington, D.C. In conjunction with Democracy Awakening (http://democracyawakening.org/), a week of protests, meetings with Congress men and women, and civil disobedience in Washington followed. By the end of the week, over 1,200 people had been arrested for civil disobedience, the largest such protests in decades.

The coverage of any of this in the mainstream corporate media was minimal at best. The most covered element of it was that Ben and Jerry (of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream) were arrested for civil disobedience. This warranted one story each on CBS, in the New York Times, and in the Boston Globe. This was the only coverage that showed up in a search of their websites, other than a letter to the editor in the Times. NBC had one story and ABC had three.

Democracy Awakening is a broad coalition of over 100 groups, including organizations representing campaign finance reform efforts, labor, environmental issues, students, and the racial justice and civil rights movements. They have coalesced with a shared belief that progress on the broad range of policy issues they care about will not occur until we combat attacks on voting rights and the corruption of our elections and democracy by big money.

The reason for civil disobedience at the Capitol was that Congress has refused to act on the issues of voting rights and campaign finance despite the overwhelming support of the American public across party affiliation, even including many in the “Tea Party.” Presidents Obama and Clinton made campaign promises to address these issues but did not follow through.

This lack of action by Congress is not because there aren’t bills that would address these issues. Ninety members of the House have signed a letter demanding action on four bills and a resolution that reflect the Democracy Awakening agenda:

  1. HR 12: Makes it easier for citizens to vote and increases the verifiability of voting results. It would require on-line and same-day voter registration, along with early voting and voting by mail. It would require voter-verified paper ballots and audits of voting results.
  2. HR 2694: Makes voter registration automatic.
  3. HR 2867: Restores some of the protections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court voided in 2013.
  4. HR 20: Provides incentives for small contributions to candidates for Congress and takes steps to reduce the influence of big money in our elections. It establishes a 50% tax credit for small contributions, bans the joint committee fundraising that has led to contributors giving checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates, and improves disclosure by requiring candidates’ financial reports to be electronic.
  5. Resolution 22: Proposes a constitutional amendment that would reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United and other cases that have allowed unlimited campaign spending by wealthy individuals and corporations, and have also given corporations and other organizations rights under the Bill of Rights that were meant for human beings.

Democracy Awakening is part of a broad effort to mobilize voters and increase participation in our elections. In the 2014 Congressional elections, barely a third of eligible voters voted. The current paralysis in Washington, hyper-partisanship, and negative campaign ads have left voters so disillusioned and cynical that they see no point in participating in our democracy and, therefore, disengage.

We need to re-awaken participation in our democracy. Without informed and engaged citizens, and without high levels of participation, our democracy will not be of, by, and for the people, because special interests will take control and bend public policy to their benefit.

I encourage you to learn more about the Democracy Awakening effort and to sign-up to be informed about this effort at its website: http://democracyawakening.org/. I also encourage you to “Follow” this blog (if you haven’t already) and to sign-up for Bill Moyers’ newsletter, where much of the information for this post came from (http://billmoyers.com/; click on “Newsletter” and enter your email address to subscribe).

$200,000+ CHECKS ARE BEING GIVEN DIRECTLY TO CANDIDATES

In 2014, the Supreme Court, in a decision known as McCutcheon, ruled that it is unconstitutional to limit how much an individual can give in aggregate to all candidates’ campaigns and political parties during an election cycle. This ruling affects contributions that go directly to candidates, whereas the better known Citizens United decision allows unlimited campaign spending that is (supposedly) independent of any candidate’s or party’s campaign. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, Congress exacerbated the situation by slipping a provision into a must-pass budget bill that raised substantially the amount a contributor can give to a party committee and allowed them to give that amount to each of multiple party committees.

Contributors are still limited by laws capping the amount one can give to any individual candidate ($5,400 for federal candidates), but the aggregate limit, which was $123,200 per two-year election cycle, was ruled a violation of free speech. Furthermore, candidates and the parties have developed strategies that allow joint fundraising where contributors can write one check that will be split among multiple candidates and/or a variety of national and state party committees.

As a result contributors are now giving checks of well over $200,000 directly to candidates. Republican Representative Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the US House, has received at least 22 checks of $244,200 each. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has received at least eight checks of $353,400 each. For the Hillary Victory Fund, the maximum donation is actually $356,100, based on maximum donations of $2,700 to Hillary for America for the primary election, $33,400 to the Democratic National Committee, and $10,000 to the federal accounts of each of 32 state Democratic parties. [1]

These are only the most dramatic examples of the dozens of checks over the previous limit that Ryan, Clinton, and other politicians are receiving. Several husband and wife pairs have given close to half a million dollars per couple. And some wealthy contributors have given super-sized checks to more than one of these joint fundraising efforts. [2]

While the bulk of the money from these huge checks goes to party committees, these party committees often make large donations to the candidate who sponsored the fundraiser. Basically, this is money laundering that circumvents the limit on what a contributor can give to any individual candidate.

The McCutcheon ruling is one of a series of Supreme Court decisions, almost all by 5 to 4 votes, that have undermined campaign finance laws and allowed huge sums of money to flow to candidates’ own campaigns, to party committees, and to supposedly independent expenditures meant to influence voters. These Supreme Court decisions appear to ignore the realities of campaign financing and the potential of large campaign contributions and expenditures to influence elected officials. They also appear to ignore the potential for outright corruption and bribery.

Although most of the media’s attention is focused on the fundraising of the presidential campaigns, big contributors tend to have even greater influence on congressional candidates and their campaigns. Furthermore, their influence on state level campaigns can be even more dramatic.

The bottom line is that these Supreme Court decisions, somewhat exacerbated by increases in contribution limits initiated by Congress, have increased the ability of a very small number of the very richest Americans to provide ever increasing amounts and portions of campaign funding. This shifts our political system away from democracy and toward a plutocracy, where the rich elites effectively rule our country.

[1]       Vogel, K.P., & Arnsdorf, I., 5/2/16, “Clinton fundraising leaves little for state parties,” Politico (http://www.politico.com/story/2016/04/clinton-fundraising-leaves-little-for-state-parties-222670)

[2]         Vandewalker, I., 4/25/16, “Two years later, McCutcheon fuels huge checks to politicians,” Moyers & Company (http://billmoyers.com/story/two-years-later-mccutcheon-fuels-huge-checks-to-politicians/)

THE YEAR-END SPENDING BILL: A BIG WIN FOR SPECIAL INTERESTS, WHILE KEEPING GOVERNMENT OPERATING

The year-end spending bill that Congress passed on December 18 was loaded with riders that had nothing to do with the budget. For example, it lifted the 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports from the US, just as the climate summit in Paris concluded that emissions from burning fossil fuels must be lowered to address climate warming. The bill continued a ban on federal funding for public health studies of the causes of gun violence and continued to allow people on the no-fly list to buy guns. It repealed the 2008 requirement that meat sold in the US has to identify its country of origin.

This spending bill also included two provisions that block the disclosure of the sources of political spending. The Internal Revenue Service is prohibited from requiring the disclosure of political spending by and donors to not-for-profit entities that engage in political activity. And the Securities and Exchange Commission is prohibited from requiring the disclosure of political spending by corporations. [1]

The bill also had pork barrel spending inserted by individual members of Congress. For example, a provision for Senator Cochran of Mississippi directs the Coast Guard to build a $640 million ship in his home state, but the Coast Guard says the ship isn’t need. Similarly, Maine Senator Collins got $1 billion in the budget for a destroyer that will probably be built in Maine, but the Navy says the ship isn’t needed. [2]

The good news is that the year-end spending bill keeps our government open and operating and funds important programs for middle and low-income Americans. Furthermore, many even more odious riders were kept out of the bill. As I noted in my last post, the good news about the separate year-end tax bill is that 40% of its provisions actually benefit regular, working Americans. This percentage is almost double what it has been in the past. Concerted activism by progressive politicians, leaders, and regular Americans made some good things happen in both the year-end spending bill and the year-end tax bill.

The bad news is that, as Moyers and Winship write, “There is an unwritten rule in Congress that before you do even a little for the working class you must do a lot for the donor class.” [3] These bills do a lot for the donor class – wealthy individuals and the corporations they run. As Moyers writes, “Candidates ask citizens for their votes, then go to Washington to do the bidding of their donors,” including cutting their taxes. So, we now have a wealthy donor class that gets high levels of representation and low levels of taxation. [4]

So, keep an eye on and be in touch with your elected officials. Let them know you are watching. Let them know that you want them to serve the interests of regular, working Americans, not those of the donor class of economic elites and the corporations they run. Make this a New Year’s resolution, because your activism as an informed citizen in a democracy can make a difference. Indeed, it has to, or our democracy, of, by, and for the people, will become a plutocracy run by and for the wealthy.

[1]       Moyers, B., & Winship, M., 12/17/15, “Lurking Within That Ominous, Omnibus Spending Bill,” Moyers & Company (http://billmoyers.com/story/lurking-within-that-ominous-omnibus-spending-bill/)

[2]       Moyers, B., 12/22/15, “The Plutocrats Are Winning. Don’t Let Them!” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/12/22/plutocrats-are-winning-dont-let-them)

[3]       Moyers, B., & Winship, M., 12/17/15, see above

[4]       Moyers, B., 12/22/15, see above

STOPPING THE SECRET MONEY IN OUR ELECTIONS

ABSTRACT: Dark money organizations – non-profit, tax exempt groups that do not have to disclose their donors – are spending tens of millions of dollars every year in our election campaigns. This means that when voters go to vote they don’t know who paid for the dark money funded ads, mailings, and other political activity that has tried to influence their voting.

Seventy-five percent of the public, including equal shares of Republicans and Democrats, believe that contributors should be disclosed. There are multiple ways to address the problem of large amounts of anonymous, dark money being spent in our election campaigns:

  • Pass a federal Constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United and related Supreme Court decisions that allow unlimited spending in our election campaigns
  • Require clear and timely disclosure of donors to dark money organizations
  • Implement a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule requiring corporations to disclose their political spending
  • Strengthen IRS regulation of non-profit, tax-exempt organizations that engage in political activity
  • Strengthen Federal Election Commission requirements for disclosure of political spending

In a democracy, voters have a right and a need to know who is trying to influence their votes and who is supporting or opposing candidates for office. Therefore, clear and timely disclosure of the sources of funds for political activity is essential.

FULL POST: In my last post, I discussed the increasing significance dark money organizations – non-profit, tax exempt groups that do not have to disclose their donors – are playing in our election campaigns and politics at the federal, state, and even local levels. They are spending tens of millions of dollars every year, which will probably grow to over $100 million in the 2016 presidential campaign.

This means that when voters go to vote they don’t know who paid for the dark money funded ads, mailings, and other political activity that has tried to influence their voting. Therefore, they aren’t able to make an informed judgment about the interests or purposes behind these political messages.

Seventy-five percent of the public, including equal shares of Republicans and Democrats, believe that contributors should be disclosed. Even Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, in the majority opinion in the Citizens United case [1] that allows unlimited corporate spending in our elections, wrote that “disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech [i.e., spending] of corporate entities in a proper way.”

There are multiple ways to address the problem of large amounts of anonymous, dark money being spent in our election campaigns. [2] Ultimately, I believe we need a federal Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and related Supreme Court decisions. Such amendment would state that 1) The rights protected by the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution are the rights of human beings only and not of corporations or other organizations, and 2) Congress and the states may place limits on political contributions and spending to ensure that our elections are fair and that all citizens can participate and have their voices heard in a reasonably equitable manner.

Given that a Constitutional amendment will not happen quickly, there are a number of steps that could and should be taken in the short-term:

  • Require clear and timely disclosure of donors to dark money organizations through federal and state laws and executive action by the President.
  • Implement a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule requiring corporations to disclose their political spending.
  • Strengthen Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulation of non-profit, tax-exempt organizations that engage in political activity.
  • Strengthen Federal Election Commission requirements for disclosure of political spending.

Shortly after the Citizens United ruling in 2010, Congress considered the DISCLOSE Act that would have mandated disclosure and reporting of all spending in federal election campaigns. The bill passed the House but failed by one vote to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate. [3] Congress should consider this legislation again in light of the tremendous growth of dark money spending and it should pass the bill this time. States should pass similar legislation to cover state and local elections.

In the meantime, President Obama should sign an Executive Order requiring all federal contractors to disclose their political spending. In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should act expeditiously to implement a proposed disclosure rule. It would require publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending. Given the SEC’s mission of protecting shareholders through corporate accountability and transparency, such a rule would be very appropriate. [4]

Along the same lines, in 2013, after years of development, the IRS proposed a rule for non-profit, tax exempt organizations that defined political activity and required timely reporting of donors. The goal was to increase transparency so voters in the 2016 elections would know who was paying for political ads and other campaign activity before entering the voting booth. There was lots of pushback over the proposed rule. Conservative advocacy groups and their supporters in Congress went so far as to manufacture a crisis surrounding the IRS’s oversight of such organizations to pressure the IRS into delaying the transparency rule and to discredit the IRS’s efforts to regulate dark money. [5]

Finally, the other entity that could and should require disclosure of the sources of campaign spending, the Federal Election Commission (FEC), is effectively paralyzed. Its members are required to be split equally between Democrats and Republicans and must be confirmed by the Senate. With a politicized confirmation process in the Senate and the current hyper-partisanship in Congress filtering down to FEC members, the FEC is gridlocked and basically unable to function.

In a democracy, voters have a right and a need to know who is trying to influence their votes and who is supporting or opposing candidates for office. Therefore, clear and timely disclosure of the sources of funds for political activity is essential. I urge you to let your elected officials and candidates for office at all levels know that you support disclosure of the sources of political spending so you can be an informed voter.

[1]       In Citizens United and related decisions the Supreme Court ruled that individuals and organizations can spend unlimited amounts of money in our election campaigns. Therefore, these dark money organizations can accept unlimited donations and spend unlimited sums. Specifically, the Court ruled that corporations and other organizations are people and have the same first amendment rights of free speech as actual human beings under the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. The rulings also said that spending money in elections (and elsewhere) is speech and is protected by freedom of speech rights.

[2]       People for the American Way and coalition partners, July 2015, “Fighting big money, empowering people: A 21st century democracy agenda,” (http://www.pfaw.org/sites/default/files/PresidentialPolicy831.pdf)

[3]       Kuns, K., 7/1/15, “The dark politics of dark money,” The Washington Spectator

[4]       U.S. PIRG, 10/12/15, “Members of Senate Banking Committee, former SEC Commissioner urge SEC nominees to support political disclosure rule,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2015/10/21/members-senate-banking-committee-former-sec-commissioner-urge-sec-nominees)

[5]       Kuns, K., 7/1/15, see above

SECRET MONEY FOR THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES

ABSTRACT: The fastest growing and perhaps the most troublesome of the four main avenues for presidential campaign fundraising and spending are the “dark money” organizations. These are non-profit organizations that can accept unlimited amounts of money and keep their donors secret. They are social-welfare groups that are supposed to work exclusively to further the common good and general welfare. However, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has interpreted “exclusively” to mean “more than 50%,” which still means that political activity shouldn’t be their primary purpose. In addition, an IRS rule prohibits social-welfare organizations from benefiting a single individual.

Some of the politically active social-welfare organizations have pushed against these limitations. In the 2014 congressional elections, dark money expenditures grew tremendously. Because of the lack of oversight and enforcement by either the IRS or the Federal Election Commission (FEC), dark money organizations started ignoring operating rules and reporting requirements. In the 2016 presidential race, single-candidate dark money organizations have surfaced that seem to violate the IRS’s single individual rule. Dark money organizations have also been active at the state and local levels.

Allowing secret donors to pay for millions of dollars of campaign spending means that voters cannot make informed decisions and raises the specter of serious corruption. Without timely disclosure of donors, our democracy cannot have the informed electorate that is essential to its effective functioning.

FULL POST: The fastest growing and perhaps the most troublesome of the four main avenues for presidential campaign fundraising and spending are the “dark money” organizations. [1] These are non-profit organizations that can accept unlimited amounts of money from wealthy individuals, corporations, unions, and other organizations. However, unlike Political Action Committees (PACs) and Super PACs, they can keep their donors secret, hence their money is “dark money.” Like PACs and Super PACs, they are supposed to operate independently of candidates’ official campaign committees.

In exchange for their non-profit, tax-exempt status, these social-welfare groups are supposed to work exclusively to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community. However, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has interpreted “exclusively” to mean that “more than 50%” of an organization’s activities have to be for social-welfare purposes. [2] [3] Therefore, political activity shouldn’t be the primary purpose of these organizations, which are registered under sections 501(c)(4), (c)(5), and (c)(6) of the IRS Code. In addition, an IRS rule prohibits social-welfare organizations from benefiting a single individual – the so-called “private benefit” rule. However, the IRS has been lax in defining political activity and in enforcing the focus on a social-welfare purpose and the private benefit rule.

Some of the politically active social-welfare organizations have pushed back against these limitations. Given the lack of enforcement from the IRS, some of them are basically ignoring operating rules and reporting requirements. In addition, some of these organizations have laundered their contributions through other entities to complicate any attempts to identify actual donors.

In the 2014 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina, a social-welfare organization called Carolina Rising, spent 97% of the $4.9 million it raised helping Thom Tillis win the seat. It received $4.8 million from a single donor whom it did not, and did not have to, disclose. The organization had no employees and spent $4.7 million through a single advertising firm for TV and cable ads. Because some of these ads aired close to the election in a time window that requires reporting to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Carolina Rising reported $3.3 million in election spending to the FEC. The contracts it signed with the TV and cable companies airing its ads, which are filed with the Federal Communications Commission, identified the ads as pro-Tillis. However, it reported to the IRS that it had conducted no political activity. Carolina Rising would appear to have clearly violated the IRS rules on benefiting a single individual and on political activity having to be less than 50% of a social-welfare organization’s activity. Furthermore, it may well have knowingly lied to the IRS in stating it had not engaged in political activity. [4]

In the 2016 presidential race, single-candidate dark money organizations have surfaced. At least four Republican presidential candidates have dedicated dark money organizations, although they would appear to violate the IRS’s single individual rule. [5]

A dark money organization, the Conservative Solutions Project, is spending heavily on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio. So far, every Rubio TV ad in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, as well as mailings to voters in those states, has been paid for by this dark money, non-profit organization. After spending $3 million over the summer promoting Rubio, it was spending almost $1 million a week in late September and early October on pro-Rubio TV ads. [6] Supposedly, it is doing all of this totally independently of the Rubio campaign.

There are plenty of examples of politically active social-welfare nonprofits flouting rules and reporting. And dark money organizations have been active at the state and local levels as well as at the national level. For example, they have opposed California ballot initiatives and blocked the start-up of a new bus line in Nashville, Tennessee, that would have linked poorer, gentrifying neighborhoods with downtown and wealthier, upscale neighborhoods. [7]

Allowing secret donors to pay for millions of dollars of campaign spending means that voters cannot make informed decisions and raises the specter of serious corruption. Without timely disclosure of political donors, our democracy cannot have the informed electorate that is essential to its effective functioning.

My next post will discuss ways of addressing this lack of disclosure of major donors to election spending.

[1]       See my previous post, Big money for the presidential candidates, for information on the other 3 avenues for campaign fundraising and spending.

[2]       Kuns, K., 7/1/15, “The dark politics of dark money,” The Washington Spectator

[3]       Bykowicz, J., 10/8/15, “Rubio’s presidential bid boosted by secret-money commercials,” The Associated Press (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/5926406673b047a7a34f1177e01014da/anonymous-donors-send-millions-pro-rubio-group)

[4]       Maguire, R., 10/20/15, “Political nonprofit spent nearly 100 percent of funds to elect Tillis in ’14,” Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2015/10/political-nonprofit-spent-nearly-100-percent-of-funds-to-elect-tillis-in-14/)

[5]       Maguire, R., & Tucker, W., 9/21/15, “Five-fold upsurge: Super PACs, dark money groups spending far more than in ’12 cycle at the same point in campaign,” Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2015/09/five-fold-upsurge-super-pacs-dark-money-groups-spending-far-more-than-in-12-cycle-at-same-point-in-campaign/)

[6]       Bykowicz, J., 10/8/15, see above

[7]       Kranish, M., 10/11/15, “A city’s immovable roadblock,” The Boston Globe

BIG MONEY FOR THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES

ABSTRACT: Tracking the tons of money already flowing into the 2016 presidential campaign is not easy. There are four main avenues for presidential campaign fundraising and spending today, when as recently as 2008 there was really only one major one – the candidate’s official campaign committee. A candidate’s official committee is limited to donations from individuals of up to $2,700.

Super Political Action Committees (PACs) are one of the new fundraising vehicles. They can accept unlimited donations from individuals, corporations, and other entities. As-of June 30, single-candidate, presidential Super PACs had raised $258 million. This is 16 times the amount such Super PACs had raised at this point in the last presidential campaign. And it is double the amount raised by the official campaign committees.

Fewer than 400 families have given almost half of the $388 million raised by the presidential candidates’ campaigns and Super PACs. While 48,000 Americans have donated $130 million to the presidential candidates’ campaigns, just 65 donors have given an equal amount – $132 million – to the candidates’ Super PACs. Having a wealthy backer or a few, makes a candidate viable today when in the past they wouldn’t have made it to the starting gate.

What all this means is that a small number of the wealthiest people in the US are exercising enormous influence over who our presidential candidates are and what policies they espouse. The rest of us are sitting on the sidelines watching and wondering if our votes or voices matter – and whether our country is still a democracy or not.

FULL POST: Tracking the tons of money already flowing into the 2016 presidential campaign is not easy. Court decisions, creative campaign lawyers, and lax enforcement have all contributed to opening up new avenues for campaign fundraising and making it impossible in some cases to identify the source of the money.

There are four main avenues for presidential campaign fundraising and spending today, when as recently as 2008 there was really only one major one – the candidate’s official campaign committee. [1] Today we have:

  1. Candidates’ official campaign committees – limited to donations from individuals of up to $2,700. Have to disclose donors of over $250.
  2. Candidate-specific Super Political Action Committees (PACs) – unlimited donations from individuals, corporations, and other entities. Have to disclose donors.
  3. Other PACs and Super PACs – some can receive unlimited donations from a wide variety of entities; others are limited. Have to disclose donors.
  4. “Dark money” organizations, usually not-for-profit entities – unlimited donations from a wide variety of entities. Do not have to disclose donors.

While any viable presidential candidate today must raise staggering amounts of money, different candidates have different patterns in their fundraising. For example, the Clinton and Sanders campaigns recently reported raising similar amounts of money over the last 3 months, $28 million and $26 million respectively. However, Clinton raised $19 million, roughly two-thirds of her money, through 60 fundraising events where the typical contribution was $2,700. Sanders has held only 7 fundraising events throughout the entire campaign and they typically cost $100 to attend. The bulk of his money came from online contributions where the average contribution was $30 and 99% of his contributions were $100 or less. [2] [3]

The use of candidate-specific Super PACs also varies. While they are supposed to operate independently of the candidate’s official campaign, in reality their operations are complementary if not actually coordinated, so analysis of a candidate’s campaign’s financial status typically combines figures for the candidate’s campaign and his or her Super PAC(s). These Super PACs, while technically barred from coordinating tactics and plans with the official campaign, are increasingly paying for core costs of a campaign, including, for example, the candidate’s travel, polling, and, of course, advertising. Furthermore, candidates are often directly involved with their Super PACs’ fundraising. The Super PACs have effectively eviscerated laws on contribution limits that were put in place to prevent bribery and corruption. [4]

Official data are available on the campaigns’ fundraising through June 30. At that point, the single-candidate, presidential Super PACs had raised $258 million. This is 16 times the amount such Super PACs had raised at this point in the last presidential campaign. And it is double the amount raised by the campaigns themselves. [5] Four of the top 7 candidates in terms of fundraising had raised more money through their Super PACs than through their campaigns, while one had raised no Super PAC money and another had essentially only raised Super PAC money: [6]

  • Jeb Bush:                Total raised: $115 million             Super PAC: $103 m          Campaign: $11 m
  • Hillary Clinton:     Total raised:  $68 million             Super PAC: $20 m            Campaign: $48 m
  • Ted Cruz:                Total raised: $53 million              Super PAC:   $39 m           Campaign: $14 m
  • Marco Rubio:         Total raised: $27 million              Super PAC:   $17 m           Campaign: $10 m
  • Ben Carson:            Total raised: $17 million              Super PAC:   $7 m             Campaign: $11 m
  • Bernie Sanders:     Total raised:   $16 million            Super PAC:   $0 m            Campaign: $16 m
  • Chris Christie:        Total raised: $14 million             Super PAC:   $14 m           Campaign:  $0 m

Fewer than 400 families have given almost half of the $388 million raised by the presidential candidates’ campaigns and Super PACs. Much of the Super PAC money is coming from a small handful of individuals and families. While 48,000 Americans have donated $130 million to the presidential candidates’ campaigns, just 65 donors have given an equal amount – $132 million – to the candidates’ Super PACs. These wealthy contributors not only have great access to the candidates they support, they are often confidantes and sometimes have business dealings with the candidates or entities that the candidates run. Having a wealthy backer or a few, makes a candidate viable today when in the past they wouldn’t have made it to the starting gate. [7] For example:

Cruz: 6 people, 4 individuals from one family and 2 other individuals, have contributed the $36 million his Super PACs have received. Under our previous campaign laws, it would have required over 13,000 individuals giving the maximum $2,700 to raise this much money.

Rubio: 4 donors have contributed $12.5 million.

Mike Huckabee: 1 individual gave $3 million.

Bush: 26 individuals or corporations have given over $1 million each.

Clinton: 9 individuals have contributed over $1 million each.

Rand Paul: 2 individuals have given a combined $3 million.

What all this means is that a small number of the wealthiest people in the US are exercising enormous influence over who our presidential candidates are and what policies they espouse. The rest of us – 300 million Americans – are sitting on the sidelines watching and wondering if our votes or voices matter – and whether our country is still a democracy or not. [8]

To put the current presidential campaign’s fundraising in some perspective, the $388 million raised by the presidential candidates’ campaigns and Super PACs already – over a year before the final election – is more than the $331 million that Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and their rivals spent in the whole 1992 election. And it is almost 5 times the amount that had been raised at this point in the 2012 presidential campaign. In the 2016 presidential election, spending will be over 20 times what it was just 24 years ago in the 1992 election.

[1]       Pindell, J., 10/1/15, “Evaluating campaign money reports gets more complicated,” The Boston Globe

[2]       Campaign Notebook, 10/2/15, “Sander’s war chest fills fast,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[3]       Bykowicz, J., 9/30/15, “Clinton, Bush steady fundraising amid GOP summer Trump slump,” Associated Press

[4]       Confessore, N., Cohen, S., & Yourish, K., 8/1/15, “Small pool of rich donors dominates election giving,” The New York Times

[5]       Kranish, M., 9/13/15, “In national politics, big money drowning out everyone else,” The Boston Globe

[6]       OpenSecrets.org, 10/4/15, “Behind the candidates: campaign committees and outside groups,” Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/pres16/raised_summ.php)

[7]       Confessore, et al., 8/1/15, see above

[8]       Kranish, M., 9/13/15, see above

BIG MONEY IN ELECTIONS IS CORRUPTING OUR DEMOCRACY

ABSTRACT: The 2016 elections, for President, Congress, and in the states, will be the most expensive elections ever by far. All the national and gubernatorial candidates (with perhaps a couple of exceptions) will be dependent on wealthy donors and will repay them with access and favors. The policies of the winning candidates will, therefore, reflect the interests of these wealthy donors.

The big money of these wealthy donors is corrupting our elections and our democracy. We won’t get an economy that works for all of us when policy decisions are bent to favor the wealthy and powerful. In the last presidential election, 40% of campaign contributions came from 16,000 households whose average wealth was $110 million. The money of these few people drowned out the voices of the other 300,000,000 of us.

There are 3 things that we need to do to address this problem: 1) Require full and timely disclosure of the original source of all election spending, 2) Establish programs to match the campaign contributions of small donors with public funds, and 3) amend the US Constitution to reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions that have equated spending money with freedom of speech and given corporations and other organizations rights (such as freedom of speech) meant for human beings.

Our system of funding elections is broken and is undermining our democracy. A functioning democracy is essential if we are going to have an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy.

FULL POST: The 2016 elections, for President, Congress, and in the states, will be the most expensive elections ever by far. All the national and gubernatorial candidates (with perhaps a couple of exceptions) will be dependent on wealthy donors and will repay them with access and favors. The policies of the winning candidates will, therefore, reflect the interests of these wealthy donors, if for no other reason that their views will be the ones the elected officials hear most frequently and forcefully.

The big money of these wealthy donors is corrupting our elections and our democracy. We won’t get an economy that works for all of us when policy decisions are bent to favor the wealthy and powerful.

In the last presidential election, 40% of campaign contributions came from 16,000 households whose average wealth was $110 million. The money of these few people drowned out the voices of the other 300,000,000 of us. The views and interests of these 1 out of every 10,000 Americans holds sway with most of Congress, and with much of the agendas of the President and the Governors of our states.

There are 3 things that we need to do to address this problem; the first could be done quickly, the second in the medium-term, and the third is a long-term solution.

  1. Require full and timely disclosure of the original source of all election spending. Congress and state legislatures need to pass laws requiring this disclosure. The President should issue an Executive Order requiring all federal contractors to disclose their political spending. The Federal Elections Commission should issue strong regulations requiring disclosure of political spending. The Internal Revenue Service should require all not-for-profit, tax exempt entities to disclose their political spending. And the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should require all publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending. Furthermore, the SEC should require shareholder approval of all corporate political spending. (Please sign my petition through Sum of Us here calling on the SEC to take these steps.) Voters have a right to know who is trying to influence their votes and their elected officials. This disclosure would allow voters to hold elected officials accountable for acting in their interests and not in the interests of their big campaign donors. (See my post The Rise of Dark Money in Campaigns for more information.)
  2. Federal, state, and local governments should establish programs to match the campaign contributions of small donors. This has been done in New York City, Maine, and Arizona, among other places. This matching of small donations with public funds amplifies the voices of average citizens and through contribution limits caps the spending of the wealthy (limiting their ability to drown out others’ voices). This makes elections fairer, encourages the engagement of more voters, and is a key step to recapturing government of, by, and for the people. (See my post Democratizing Campaign Financing for more detail.)
  3. Ultimately, we need to amend the US Constitution to reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions (Citizens United, McCutcheon, and others) that gave corporations and other organizations rights (such as freedom of speech) meant for human beings and equated spending money with speech, and, therefore, with freedom of speech protections. (See my post Corporations Are Not People and Money Is Not Speech for more detail.)

Our system of elections is broken and is undermining our democracy. A functioning democracy is essential if we are going to have an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy. We need to stop the big money from corrupting our elections and our government. Wealthy special interests cannot be allowed to drown out the voices of the average voter and citizen if we want to have a democracy of, by, and for the people. (See my posts under the category Campaigns: Financing & Voting for more information on the topic of money in our elections.)

Getting big money out of politics is the twelfth and last (they decided that 10 ideas wasn’t quite enough) of Ten Ideas to Save the Economy: The Big Picture presented by Robert Reich and MoveOn.org. (You can watch the 3 minute video at: https://www.facebook.com/moveon/videos/vb.7292655492/10152835663535493/?type=2&theater.) None of the other 11 big ideas to save our economy that this series has presented are likely to come to fruition unless we get the big money out of our election campaigns.

IMPORTANT ISSUES FOR THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN

ABSTRACT: There’s no shortage of important issues facing the U.S. today. As candidates announce their intention to run for president, it will be interesting to see which issues they make priorities and which issues the mainstream corporate media decide to cover. Many candidates and the mainstream media are likely to avoid the issues of the struggling middle and working classes and of the growing inequality of income and wealth.

However, MoveOn.org and Robert Reich have teamed up to present 10 important issues for supporting the middle and working classes, reclaiming our democracy from moneyed interests, and saving our planet. Reich does a 3 minute video on each issue.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democratic candidate for President, has a similar focus. If these issues resonate with you, I encourage you to follow Senator Sanders’ campaign. If you want these issues to be discussed in the campaign, give him some support during the primary.

FULL POST: There’s no shortage of important issues facing the U.S. today. As candidates announce their intention to run for president, it will be interesting to see which issues they make priorities. It will also be interesting to see which issues the mainstream media – the big corporate media – decide to cover. Many candidates and the mainstream media are likely to avoid the issues of the struggling middle and working classes and of the growing inequality of income and wealth. However, there are efforts to explicitly put these issues in the spotlight.

MoveOn.org and Robert Reich [1] have teamed up to present “10 Big Ideas to Save the Economy.” These are 10 important issues for supporting the middle and working classes, reclaiming our democracy from moneyed interests, and saving our planet. The corporate media and many candidates will avoid them. Therefore, MoveOn and Reich are using social media to try and bring these ten issues to voters’ attention. The issues are:

  • Enacting a $15 minimum wage
  • Supporting working families through equal pay for women, predictable work schedules, quality child care, and paid leave
  • Expanding Social Security
  • Reining in Wall Street
  • Reinventing education
  • Ending corporate welfare
  • Strengthening workers’ bargaining power through stronger unions
  • Increasing the estate tax
  • Implementing a carbon tax to cut pollution and address global warming
  • Getting big money out of politics

I’ve done blog posts on the first five and will do posts on the others soon. In the posts, I include a link to the 3 minute video that Robert Reich does to explain each one.

There’s one Democratic candidate for President, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose campaign has a similar focus on the middle and working classes and on inequality. Although the mainstream (corporate) media tend to describe him as a fringe candidate and highlight his socialist political label, his positions on issues are very well aligned with what the voting public supports. For example, he supports: [2] [3] [4]

  • Providing universal pre-kindergarten – supported by 77% of the public
  • Reducing income and wealth inequality – supported by 63% of the public
  • Fair trade that protect workers, the environment, and jobs – supported by 75% of the public
  • Increasing taxes on the rich – supported by 52% of the public
  • Expanding Social Security – supported by 70% of the public
  • Breaking up the big banks – supported by 58% of the public
  • Making higher education more affordable – supported by 79% of the public
  • Reducing the burden of student debt – supported by 78% of the public
  • Ending tax loopholes for corporations that ship jobs overseas – supported by 74% of the public
  • Closing offshore corporate tax loopholes – supported by 70% of the public
  • Addressing climate change – supported by 71% of the public
  • Getting big money out of politics – supported by over 70% of the public across party lines

If Senator Sanders’ positions on these issues resonate with you, I encourage you to follow to his campaign. If you want these issues to be discussed in the campaign, give him some support during the primary. His campaign website is https://berniesanders.com/.

[1]       Robert Reich was President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor and MoveOn.org is the progressive, grassroots organization promoting participation in our democracy.

[2]       Moyers, B., & Winship M., 6/3/15, “Turn left on Main Street,” Moyers & Company (http://billmoyers.com/2015/06/03/turn-left-main-street/?utm_source=General+Interest&utm_campaign=512c7d35f1-Midweek12171412_17_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_4ebbe6839f-512c7d35f1-168350969)

[3]       Cole, J., 5/29/15, “Despite what corporate media tells you, Bernie Sanders’ positions are mainstream,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/05/29/how-mainstream-bernie-sanders)

[4]       Progressive Change Institute, Jan. 2015, “Poll of likely 2016 voters,” (https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.boldprogressives.org/images/Big_Ideas-Polling_PDF-1.pdf)

WHY ECONOMIC INEQUALITY CONTINUES TO GROW AND WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT

ABSTRACT: Despite many indicators that our economy is strong, most Americans are experiencing economic insecurity. Over half of US households have less than one month’s income in regular savings and median household income continues to decline. Low-wage workers at Walmart, McDonalds, and elsewhere are so poor they are receiving $45 billion in public assistance. This translates into the average US household paying $400 a year in taxes to support these workers.

So why are the majority of Americans falling behind economically? And why were things so different in the post-World War II period? The US job market has changed dramatically. Many full-time jobs have been replaced part-time jobs, contract work, and temporary work. Many large employers and some politicians have engaged in a conscious effort to undermine the bargaining power of workers and weaken the enforcement of labor laws. Policies that allow outsourcing of jobs overseas and high unemployment further undermine the availability of good jobs at good wages.

The ability of the public and voters to demand policies that support the middle class and workers has also been undermined. Wealthy individuals and corporations are now allowed to make huge contributions and expenditures in our elections, drowning out the voices of average voters. This means that economic inequality translates into political inequality and policies that favor the well-off. Furthermore, new barriers to voting and a strategy of paralyzing and denigrating government has fostered voter cynicism, which leads to “a downward spiral [of] depressed expectations and diminished participation.”

A genuine mass movement is needed to restore economic security and opportunity for the typical American worker. An opportunity to participate in building such a movement is available right now in the election of the Mayor of Chicago. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is unexpectedly giving incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a crony of wealthy business interests, a run for his money. You can learn more about Garcia and contribute to his campaign at http://www.chicagoforchuy.com/index.html. The success of candidates like Garcia is critical to turning around the direction of our politics and policies, and to re-establishing government of, by, and for the people.

FULL POST: As the stock market sets record highs, as unemployment falls, and as the economy grows, most Americans are experiencing economic insecurity. Since 2007, US wealth as grown by over $30 trillion, but the number of children in families receiving public assistance to buy food has grown by 6.5 million to 16 million children (20% of all kids). Over half of public school students are poor enough to qualify for lunch subsidies and over half of US households have less than one month’s income in regular savings (as opposed to retirement accounts or home equity). Median household income has continued to decline in the 5 years since the official recession ended; 95% of income growth since 2009 has gone to the richest 1%. The jobs that are being created pay, on average, 23% less than the jobs that were lost. [1]

Low-wage workers (those earning less than $10.10 per hour) at Walmart, McDonalds, and elsewhere are so poor they are receiving $45 billion in public assistance. This translates into the average US household paying $400 a year in taxes to support these workers. Walmart’s highly publicized $1 raise for its lowest paid workers will cost the company about $1 billion per year. Its profits last year were $25 billion and it spent about $6.5 billion to buy back its own stock, enriching its investors. It’s estimated that taxpayers spent about $6 billion providing public assistance to Walmart employees last year. [2]

So why are the majority of Americans falling behind economically when many measures indicate that our economy is doing well and when the wealthy are doing very well? And why were things so different in the post-World War II period when our economy was doing well and the majority of Americans were getting ahead? Bob Kuttner offers seven reasons, which I summarize below. [3]

The US job market has changed dramatically. Many full-time jobs with career opportunities have been replaced part-time jobs, contract work, temporary work, and so forth. Many large employers and some politicians have engaged in a conscious effort to undermine the bargaining power of workers and weaken the enforcement of labor laws. Policies that allow outsourcing of jobs overseas and high unemployment (while limiting unemployment benefits) further undermine market forces that would provide good jobs at good wages – and with benefits.

Pro-business Republicans and Democrats have supported these policies. Furthermore, the ability of the public and voters to demand policies that support the middle class and workers has been undermined. Laws and court decisions have allowed wealthy individuals and corporations to make huge contributions and expenditures in our elections, drowning out the voices of average voters. This means that economic inequality translates into political inequality, and wealthy special interests can promote their own good at the expense of the public.

Similarly, laws and court decisions have made it more difficult for many voters to vote. And finally, a strategy of paralyzing and denigrating government, particularly at the national level, has fostered voter cynicism. This leads to passivity and lack of involvement in political activity including voting – “a downward spiral [of] depressed expectations and diminished participation.”

Kuttner says a genuine mass movement is needed to restore economic security and opportunity for the typical American worker, as well as democracy to our political process. He notes that the Roosevelt Revolution and New Deal of the 1930s accomplished this. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s also made major changes in economic justice and democratic processes. So it’s time again to throw off cynicism and apathy, and to activate and organize.

An opportunity to do so is available right now in the election of the Mayor of Chicago. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is polling within 4 percentage points of incumbent Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, a crony of wealthy business interests (and former Chief of Staff for President Obama and former US Representative). As Mayor, Emanuel closed 50 public schools, attacked teachers, and engaged in privatizing schools, parking meters, transit fare collection, and other public sector functions and jobs. He has focused on downtown development while ignoring the neighborhoods. He has raised taxes and fees on working people while providing sweetheart deals for business people, many of whom have contributed to his election campaign. Emanuel has raised over $13 million, ten times what Garcia has raised, and has a super PAC backing him as well. He is receiving substantial support from wealthy business people who are active Republicans. [4]

Garcia shocked everyone in the primary by keeping Emanuel from getting a majority of the vote, thereby forcing the run-off election on April 7. If you would like to contribute to the movement to restore democracy, reduce inequality, and support workers and the middle class, supporting Garcia is a good opportunity. You can learn more about him and contribute to his campaign at http://www.chicagoforchuy.com/index.html. Even if you contribute just a few dollars, the number of donors is an important indication of the breadth of support. You can sign-up to make calls from your home encouraging Chicago residents to get out and vote for him here: http://pol.moveon.org/2015/garcia_calls.html?rc=kos.

The success of candidates like Garcia is critical to turning around the direction of our politics and policies, and to re-establishing government of, by, and for the people. Even if they don’t ultimately win, they change the issues and policies that are discussed, and help build the movement for change.

P.S. I think it’s noteworthy that there hasn’t been much coverage by the mainstream (corporate) media of this unexpectedly contested mayoral race in our 3rd largest city.

[1]       Buchheit, P., 2/9/15, “New evidence that half of America is broke,” Common Dreams

[2]       Buchheit, P., 3/16/15, “Four numbers that show the beating down of middle America,” Common Dreams

[3]       Kuttner, R., 3/23/15, “Why the 99 percent keeps losing,” Huffington Post

[4]       Perlstein, R., Feb. 2015, “How to sell off a city,” In These Times (http://inthesetimes.com/article/17533/how_to_sell_off_a_city)

OUR ELECTIONS ARE ALL ABOUT THE MONEY

ABSTRACT: Although the next presidential election is over 20 months away, there is already media attention focused on who can and who is raising the most money. The top lobbyists / bundlers raise over $1 million for candidates’ campaigns. If this isn’t a blatant way of buying influence, I don’t know what is. A Washington, D.C., lawyer and political activist formed a super PAC that raised $145 million for Romney’s campaign in 2012. Presidential candidate Jeb Bush is holding $100,000 per person fundraisers. He plans to hold 60 fundraisers before April 1, an average of nearly one per day.

The money race is the real race; the actual courting of voters and voting is secondary. The savvy, hard-working, profit-driven individuals making large campaign contributions are looking for a return on their investment. And they get it through government actions that benefit their interests. This, in a nutshell, is the legalized corruption of the political system of our supposed democracy.

We must reform our system of financing election campaigns. Two essential elements are:

  • Reversing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and related decisions, and
  • Establishing campaign financing systems where small contributions to viable candidates are matched by public funds so candidates can be competitive based on support from every day citizens and voters instead of being dependent on wealthy individuals and interest groups.

 

FULL POST: Although the next presidential election is over 20 months away, it is already getting quite a bit of media attention. Little of that attention is focused on the policies that the possible candidates support. Much of the attention is focused on who can and who is raising the most money.

On the Republican side, Romney’s decision not to run has set off a scramble among other possible candidates to win over his financial backers. Romney’s top five lobbyists / bundlers each raised over $1 million for his campaign. These lobbyists for powerful corporate interests solicited campaign contributions from multiple individuals and political action committees (PACs) and presented them in aggregate (i.e., a bundle) to Romney’s campaign. If this isn’t a blatant way of buying influence, I don’t know what is. The top lobbyist / bundler was Bill Graves, president of the American Truckers Association and former Governor of Kansas.

Announced presidential candidate Jeb Bush has been aggressively wooing the Romney fundraisers and others. He began active fundraising last November, two years before the election. In a recent week, he held a $100,000 per person fundraiser in New York, two fundraisers in Washington, D.C., and two in Chicago. He told his audience of lobbyists, CEOs, and corporate industry group representatives that he plans to hold 60 fundraisers before April 1, an average of nearly one per day. Charlie Spies, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and political activist, who formed a super PAC that raised $145 million for Romney’s campaign is now working with a newly formed super PAC supporting Bush. [1]

The money race is the real race; the actual courting of voters and voting is secondary. Is this really the way we want to be selecting candidates for President (or any office) in a democracy? Is this really how we want our candidates to be spending their time? Is this really what we want the media to be reporting about the candidates – how many fundraisers they are having, how much money they are raising, and who is providing them with huge amounts of money? Do we really want our candidates courting and being indebted to these wealthy individuals and interest groups?

The savvy, hard-working, profit-driven individuals making large campaign contributions are looking for a return on their investment. And they get it through government actions that benefit their interests. As one example of such a return, the Koch brothers spent in excess of $100 million in the 2014 federal election, primarily, if not exclusively, in support of Republican candidates. The new Republican-controlled Congress just happened to fast-track a vote on a bill mandating the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The Koch brothers and their corporations lease oil rights on more than a million acres of land in the Alberta tar sands region from which the pipeline would transport oil. The construction of the pipeline would increase the value of their leases by an estimated $100 million! [2] This is just one example of the kind of payback wealthy campaign donors get. And the Koch brothers have just announced their intention to spend close to a billion dollars in the 2016 elections.

This, in a nutshell, is the legalized corruption of the political system of our supposed democracy. We are well down the road to a plutocracy (where the wealth elites rule) or a corporatocracy (where the corporations rule). I’m not sure there’s much difference, actually. (See my post on 7/21/14 for more detail.)

We must reform our system of financing election campaigns or we will lose our democracy – government of, by, and for the people. Reforming campaign financing will not be easy or quick. Two essential elements are:

  • Reversing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and related decisions that equate money with speech and give corporations the free speech rights of the Bill of Rights (see my post on 1/11/15 for more detail), and
  • Establishing campaign financing systems, such as those in Arizona, Maine, and New York City, where small contributions to viable candidates are matched by public funds so candidates can be competitive based on support from every day citizens and voters instead of being dependent on wealthy individuals and interest groups (see my post on 7/25/14 for more detail).

[1]       Viser, M, 2/14/15, “Bush pressing to lock in Romney’s donors,” The Boston Globe

[2]       Hightower, J., 12/14, “Koch Kongress: The best money can buy,” The Hightower Lowdown (http://www.hightowerlowdown.org/)

PROGRESSIVE VALUES ARE ALIVE AND WELL IN THE U.S.

ABSTRACT: Despite Republicans taking over control of the U.S. Senate, progressive values are alive and well in the U.S. In a recent poll of likely 2016 voters, over 70% supported the following policies:

  • Medicare should be allowed to negotiate drug prices
  • Student loans should have lower interest rates
  • Pre-kindergarten and Medicare should be available to all
  • Trade agreements should protect workers, jobs, and the environment
  • Corporations that ship jobs overseas shouldn’t get tax breaks
  • The government should establish a $400 billion / year infrastructure-building jobs program
  • Public higher education should be debt-free and Social Security benefits should be expanded.

The full set of poll questions and results are available at: https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.boldprogressives.org/images/Big_Ideas-Polling_PDF-1.pdf.

There also were many positive results on progressive ballot measures in the 2014 election. The question is, how did conservative Republicans get elected when they don’t reflect the will of the people? The four main answers are:

  • Turnout in the November election was very low
  • Many Democrats didn’t campaign on the progressive issues that are popular with voters
  • Gerrymandered electoral districts and our primary election system produce very ideological candidates who are not representative of the larger population
  • Voter suppression efforts by Republicans have succeeded in reducing voting by groups that tend to favor Democrats.

FULL POST: Despite Republicans taking over control of the U.S. Senate and therefore both branches of Congress, progressive values are alive and well in the U.S. The progressive policies that President Obama put forward in his State of the Union speech are much closer to what Americans want from their government than the conservative policy proposals the Republicans are espousing.

In a recent poll of likely voters in the 2016 election, over 70% supported the following policies:

  • Medicare should be allowed to negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical corporations
  • Student loans should have the same low interest rates as the big bank corporations get
  • Universal pre-kindergarten should be provided
  • Trade agreements should protect workers, jobs, and the environment
  • Corporations that ship jobs overseas shouldn’t get tax breaks
  • Medicare should be available to anyone who is willing to pay for it
  • Corporations should have to disclose spending on elections and lobbying
  • The government should establish a $400 billion / year infrastructure-building jobs program
  • Public higher education should be available to all debt-free
  • Social Security benefits should be expanded

There were other issues with over 70% support and many more with majority support. The full set of poll questions and results are available at: https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.boldprogressives.org/images/Big_Ideas-Polling_PDF-1.pdf.

There also were many positive results on progressive ballot measures in the 2014 election, some of which I covered in my 11/25/14 post. Here are some more, thanks to Jim Hightower and his Hightower Lowdown newsletter (http://www.hightowerlowdown.org/).

In dozens of communities in at least five states (Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Wisconsin), voters supported overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and related decisions that have allowed unlimited sums of money to be spent on election campaigns. These voters called for a Constitutional amendment that would state that corporations do not have the same rights as human persons and that money is not equivalent to speech and therefore can be regulated in election campaigns. Voters in Wisconsin, who re-elected conservative, Republican Governor Walker, nonetheless, voted overwhelmingly in 12 communities for this Constitutional amendment (between 70% and 83% in favor). [1]

Voters statewide in Massachusetts; in Oakland, CA; and in two New Jersey cities voted overwhelmingly to require employers to provide paid sick time (between 59% and 86% in favor). In Alaska, Florida, and New Jersey voters approved conservation initiatives.

Local bans on fracking [2] passed in two counties in California; in Athens, Ohio; and in Denton, Texas. In Denton, the supporters of the ban were out-spent almost 30 to 1, but, nonetheless, won 59% of the votes; a resounding victory, especially because Texas is a major oil and gas state.

Republicans have accused President Obama of being political in his State of the Union speech because he proposed policies that are popular with the public but not with the conservative Republicans who control Congress. This seems like convoluted logic to me. Isn’t democratic, representative government supposed to put in place policies that are popular with the public? It sounds like the Congressional Republicans are admitting that they are out of step with what the public wants. The polling and results of ballot measures cited above confirm this apparent admission.

The question is, how did conservative Republicans get elected when they don’t reflect the will of the people? The four main answers are:

  • Turnout in the November election was very low (only 25% of those eligible to vote actually voted),
  • Many Democrats didn’t campaign on the progressive issues that are popular with voters,
  • Gerrymandered electoral districts, particularly for the US House, and our primary election system where turnout is even lower than in the final election (less than 15% of eligible voters) tend to produce very ideological candidates for the final election who are not representative of the larger population, and
  • Voter suppression efforts by Republicans have succeeded in reducing voting by groups, such as minorities, the young, and the elderly, that tend to favor Democrats.

If you know of other examples of progressive local ballot initiatives that were approved by voters or other examples of Congress not representing the will of the people, please share them in a comment on this post. Thanks!

[1]       Hightower, J., Dec. 2014, “As majorities tossed meek, dodgy Democrats, even more said “Yes” to populist ballot measures,” The Hightower Lowdown (http://www.hightowerlowdown.org/

[2]       Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing and is the process of drilling and injecting liquid made of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks and release natural gas or oil.

CORPORATIONS ARE NOT PEOPLE AND MONEY IS NOT SPEECH

ABSTRACT: Many millions of dollars are being spent by special interest groups on our political campaigns. This level of spending makes it clear that wealthy special interests – individuals, corporations, unions, and non-profit organizations – are taking over our elections.

The only way to stop this undemocratic spending is through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution – because of the Supreme Court’s rulings in Citizens United and other cases. Overturning the 2010 Citizens United decision has broad support across all demographic and political groups, including 85% of Democrats, 76% of Republicans, and 81% of independents. And two-thirds of small business owners view the Citizens United decision as bad for small businesses.

Move to Amend, Wolf PAC, and other organizations are working to enact a corrective Constitutional amendment by introducing bills in state legislatures that call on Congress to enact such an amendment or, if Congress fails to act, calling for a Constitutional Convention to propose such an amendment. This legislation has passed in California, Vermont, and Illinois, and is pending in 13 other states.

If you’d like to participate in the effort to overturn Citizens United, contact Move to Amend or Wolf PAC via their websites. Both have local and national activities in which you can participate.

FULL POST: Many millions of dollars are being spent by special interest groups on our political campaigns, both for candidates’ elections and on ballot questions. Nationally, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in 2014 by outside groups (i.e., not a candidate’s own campaign). (See previous post on 11/17/14 for details.) However, this is not just an issue for national elections. For example, here in Massachusetts recent outside spending included:

  • Governor’s race in 2014:                over $17 million
  • Two ballot questions in 2014:       over $23 million
  • Boston Mayor’s race in 2013:        over $  4 million

This level of spending makes it clear that wealthy special interests – individuals, corporations, unions, and non-profit organizations – are taking over our elections. The basic democratic principle of one person, one vote, is being overwhelmed by money. This money serves as a megaphone so that the voices and wishes of these wealthy special interests drown out the voices of average voters and citizens.

Making this situation even worse is that a growing portion of these huge sums is given by anonymous donors. (See previous post on 11/17/14.) This money is called “dark money” because its source is unknown. Anonymous donors means there is no accountability for the messages delivered. Furthermore, voters can’t effectively evaluate the credibility of the message because they don’t know who is paying for it.

The only way to stop this undemocratic spending in our elections is through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution – because of the Supreme Court’s rulings in Citizens United and other cases. (These rulings said that corporations and other organizations are people and have all the same rights as actual human beings under the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. The rulings also said that spending money in elections [and elsewhere] is speech and is protected by freedom of speech rights.)

The American public broadly supports overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which was the key to the avalanche of political spending by outside groups. Polling finds that 80% of the American people oppose the Citizens United decision with remarkably strong agreement across all demographic and political groups, including 85% of Democrats, 76% of Republicans, and 81% of independents. Similarly, 88% of small business owners view the current role of money in politics negatively and two-thirds view the Citizens United decision as bad for small businesses.

To address this situation, Move to Amend (https://movetoamend.org/), Wolf PAC (http://www.wolf-pac.com/), and other organizations are working to enact a corrective Constitutional amendment. They are introducing bills in state legislatures that take a two-step approach to advancing the Constitutional amendment necessary to reverse these rulings.

  • First, these bills call on Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment stating two things:
    • The rights protected by the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution are the rights of human beings only and not of corporations or other organizations.
    • Congress and the states may place limits on political contributions and spending to ensure that our elections are fair and that all citizens can participate and have their voices heard in a reasonably equitable manner.
  • Second, if Congress fails to act within six months, the bills call for a Constitutional Convention to propose this amendment.

Such legislation has passed in California, Vermont, and Illinois, and is pending in 13 other states. You can check at the Move to Amend and Wolf PAC websites to see if there is an initiative in your state. A call for a Convention to amend the Constitution needs to be part of the legislation because our current Congress is so indebted to and dependent on wealthy campaign contributors that it is unlikely to pass an amendment staunching the flow of campaign money on its own.

Four of the last 11 amendments to the Constitution began this way – with state resolutions pressuring Congress to act. Notably, the 17th amendment, which established direct election of US Senators in 1913, was passed by Congress only after many states had passed a call for a Constitutional Convention. Although such a Convention has never occurred, if one did occur, any amendment it proposed would have to be ratified by ¾ of the states in order to go into effect.

If you’d like to participate in the effort to overturn Citizens United, first, go to the Move to Amend website and sign their petition (if you haven’t already). Second, I encourage you to contact Move to Amend or Wolf PAC via their websites. Both have local and national activities in which you can participate.

PROGRESSIVE SUCCESSES IN THE 2014 ELECTION

ABSTRACT: Perhaps surprisingly, in the context of Republican and conservative candidates’ victories in the 2014 election, many ballot initiatives that were decidedly liberal or progressive passed. Democrats running clearly progressive campaigns for the US Senate won in 3 states. The Republican victories in many very close races were made possible by very low voter turnout. Only 35% of those registered to vote and 25% of those eligible to vote actually voted.

Voters in four Republican states – Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota – raised the minimum wage despite concerted and well-funded opposition. In Richmond, California, progressives defeated mayoral and city council candidates heavily funded by Chevron, the nation’s third largest corporation. In Arkansas, despite a sweep by Republican candidates, a ballot initiative passed that reformed campaign finance and ethics laws. In Tallahassee, Florida, voters also approved reforms in campaign finance and ethics laws. In dozens of communities in four states (Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio), voters overwhelmingly favored ballot measures supporting a federal constitutional amendment that would state that corporations do not have the same rights as human persons and that money is not equivalent to speech and therefore can be regulate in election campaigns.

This all makes it clear that Republican candidates’ election victories do not reflect public opinion on many important policy issues. Rather, they were the result of a failure of many Democrats to campaign on popular progressive policies. Furthermore, the election outcomes reflect Republicans’ successes in changing the rules of our elections to suppress voter turnout and allow the spending of huge sums by wealthy corporations and individuals.

FULL POST: Perhaps surprisingly, in the context of Republican and conservative candidates’ victories in the 2014 election, many ballot initiatives that were decidedly liberal or progressive passed – sometimes even in the same jurisdictions that were electing conservatives. Furthermore, Democrats running for the US Senate who ran some of the most clearly progressive campaigns won: Senator Jeff Merkley (Democrat of Oregon), Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), and incoming Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich.).

The Republican victories in many very close races were made possible by very low voter turnout – the lowest since 1942 – which favors Republicans and conservatives. Only 35% of those registered to vote and 25% of those eligible to vote actually voted. In the Congressional elections, Republicans won 52% of the vote, which represents only 17% of those registered to vote and 13% of those eligible to vote. [1] Hardly a mandate by normal standards. The Republican’s large majority in the US House is largely due to extreme gerrymandering of House districts.

Despite the context, every major progressive or Democratic ballot initiative won, even in Republican states. Every minimum wage increase won and every personhood amendment failed (CO & ND). (These are amendments to state Constitutions that confer personhood and all its rights on embryos at fertilization.) [2] Across the nation, voters also passed measures against fracking, for paid sick leave, for criminal justice sentencing reform, and for gun purchase background checks. [3]

Voters in four Republican states – Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota – raised the minimum wage against the concerted and well-funded opposition of national and local big business groups. This will raise the pay levels for over 1.7 million workers. Alaska and South Dakota linked the minimum wage to inflation, so it will increase automatically in the future. San Francisco and Oakland voters also overwhelmingly increased the minimum wage in those cities. Illinois voters strongly supported a non-binding referendum to raise the minimum wage.

In Richmond, California, progressives defeated mayoral and city council candidates funded by Chevron, the nation’s third largest corporation. Chevron, which owns a huge refinery in the city, poured at least $3 million into the local elections in this working class city of 105,000 people (about $150 for each likely voter). It sought to oust a progressive local government that was requiring it to clean up its pollution, pay more taxes into city coffers, and be a more responsible and accountable corporate citizen. Wall St. corporations also participated in the attempt to throw out the progressives because the city government, faced with a decade of predatory lending and an epidemic of foreclosures and “underwater” mortgages, demanded that Wall Street banks help troubled homeowners save their homes. In the election, community groups, labor unions, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), and others mobilized a grassroots campaign to re-elect a progressive city government. [4]

A California ballot initiative reformed sentencing laws and one in Washington State expanded criminal background checks for gun purchases. In Arizona, voters defeated a right wing attempt to undermine public employee pensions. In Denton, Texas, the heart of oil and gas country, voters banned fracking, the controversial drilling method for extracting gas from rock formations.

In Arkansas, despite a sweep by Republican candidates, a ballot initiative passed that reformed campaign finance and ethics laws. It bans direct corporate and union campaign contributions to candidates, forbids lawmakers from accepting gifts of any kind from lobbyists, and increases the amount of time departing lawmakers must wait before lobbying from one to two years.

In Tallahassee, Florida, voters overwhelmingly approved an anti-corruption initiative limiting campaign contributions, creating a $25 tax rebate for small contributions, and boosting ethics reforms by creating an ethics panel and a tough conflict-of-interest policy for city officials. In dozens of communities in four states (Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio), voters overwhelmingly favored ballot measures supporting a federal constitutional amendment overturning Supreme Court decisions including Citizens United and McCutcheon. The amendment would state that corporations do not have the same rights as human persons and that money is not equivalent to speech and therefore can be regulated in election campaigns. [5]

This all makes it clear that Republican candidates’ election victories do not reflect public opinion on many important policy issues. Rather, they were the result of a failure of many Democrats to campaign on popular progressive policies. Furthermore, the election outcomes reflect Republicans’ successes in changing the rules of our elections to favor big business and conservative interest groups by suppressing voter turnout and allowing the spending of huge sums by wealthy corporations and individuals. [6]

[1]       Murphthesurf3, 11/20/14, “GOP columnist: The VERY bad news for the GOP in the GOP’s midterm victory,” The Daily Kos

[2]       Ladd, C., 11/10/14, “The missing story of the 2014 election,” Houston Chronicle

[3]       Dreier, P., 11/7/14, “Progressive Midterm Victories You Didn’t Hear About — And Some That Could Still Happen,” The American Prospect

[4]       Dreier, P., 11/7/14, see above

[5]       Blumenthal, P., 11/14/14, “Where campaign finance reformers actually won on election day,” The Huffington Post

[6]       Dreier, P., 11/7/14, see above

2014 ELECTION RETROSPECTIVE PART 1: THE MONEY

ABSTRACT: In the 2014 election, the influx and impact of huge amounts of money was clearly evident and the growth of “dark money” – money where the actual contributor is unknown – was a very significant factor. This was the most expensive non-presidential election ever – estimated at $3.7 billion. Outside spending, that is money not spent by the candidates’ campaigns themselves but by supposedly independent groups and the political parties, was more than the spending by the candidates themselves for the first time. This means that accountability for much of what’s said during campaigns no longer rests with the candidates. One facet of this is that a predominant portion of the ads paid for by outside money are negative ads that attack a candidate. These campaign practices undermine both the functioning of and the faith in our democracy.

Roughly a billion dollars was spent on the 36 US Senate races alone – an average of about $30 million each. In the 11 most competitive races for the US Senate, $342 million of non-party outside money was spent with $203 million of this (59%) being “dark money” where the true donor is unknown. The typical contribution to the 5 largest non-party outside spending entities that disclose donors was over $100,000.

The real money story of this election was not which side had more resources, but that such a large chunk of the cost was paid for by a small group of ultra-wealthy donors. By super-sizing contributions that benefit specific candidates, the likelihood of corruption escalates because elected officials are pressured to repay big donors after the election.

The results of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and other decisions couldn’t be clearer. Hundreds of millions of dollars from undisclosed donors are flooding our elections. Very wealthy donors are contributing millions of dollars. There is very strong evidence that this money is influencing who wins our elections, because the candidate supported by the most money usually wins. This was true for 94% of US House races and 82% of US Senate races in 2014.

There is also strong evidence that our Congress returns the favor by supporting the wealthy interests that funded their elections and put them in office – to the detriment of the middle and working classes. We need look no further than Wall St. to see the evidence: corporate profits, stock prices, CEO pay, and investors’ wealth have never been higher. Yet, the middle and working class still struggle to make ends meet.

This is not democracy. We need to reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions through a Constitutional Amendment. In the meantime we need much stronger disclosure laws for campaign spending so we know who is trying to influence our votes. More on this next time.

FULL POST: In the 2014 election, the influx and impact of huge amounts of money was clearly evident and the growth of “dark money” – money where the actual contributor is unknown – was a very significant factor.

In this post, I will review the role of money in the 2014 national election. In a subsequent post, I’ll identify ways we can address the corrupting and undemocratic flow of huge sums of money into our elections. Further analysis of the 2014 election in future posts will cover some state and local elections results, as well as the success of progressive candidates and ballot initiatives (despite the general, national success of “conservative” and Republican candidates).

This was the most expensive non-presidential campaign ever – estimated at $3.7 billion. Outside spending, that is money not spent by the candidates’ campaigns themselves but by supposedly independent groups and the political parties, was more than the spending by the candidates themselves for the first time. This means that accountability for much of what’s said during campaigns no longer rests with the candidates. They can – and do – say that they have no control over the outside groups. With increasing amounts of outside spending, and especially the growth of spending by groups that do not have to disclose contributors, accountability for and constraints on what is said vanish. One facet of this is that a predominant portion of the ads paid for by outside money are negative ads that attack a candidate. This tends to discourage people from voting and lowers their opinions of our elected officials and government. These campaign practices undermine both the functioning of and the faith in our democracy.

Roughly a billion dollars was spent on the 36 US Senate races alone – an average of about $30 million each. North Carolina’s Senate race was the most expensive ever with $116 million spent, including $84 million of outside spending – which shattered the previous outside spending record of $52 million. Spending on the 10 most expensive US House races averaged over $16 million each. [1]

In the 11 most competitive races for the US Senate, [2] $342 million in non-party outside money was spent, plus $89 million from the political parties. The non-party, outside spending on just these 11 races is one-third more than the outside spending on all 33 Senate races in 2012. Of the $342 million of non-party outside money, $203 million (59%) was “dark money” where the true donor is unknown. And this “dark money” may have tipped these elections, as winners of these races received twice as much “dark money” as the losers. For the 8 Republican winners, an average of 78% of their non-party, outside money was “dark money.” [3]

Non-party outside spending is NOT funded by regular voters. The typical contribution to the 5 largest non-party outside spending entities that disclose donors was over $100,000. For sake of comparison, this is more than the average household income in the US, which is $73,000. Of the top 20 outside spending groups, which together spent over $300 million, 7 provide no disclosure of donors, 5 provide partial disclosure, and only 8 provide full disclosure (2 of which are the national parties). [4]

To get an idea of the huge amounts these large donors give:

  • The top 20 individual donors to outside groups gave an average of $8.4 million each, while
  • The top 20 organizations donating to outside groups gave an average of $5.8 million each.

All told, these two groups of 40 donors gave a combined $284.7 million, which far exceeds the projected spending of either of the national parties. [5]

This election documented again that money is a deciding factor. When “conservative” outside groups outspent “liberal” groups, the “conservative,” i.e., Republican, candidate won every time. [6] However, the real money story of this election was not which side had more resources, but that such a large chunk of the cost was paid for by a small group of ultra-wealthy donors. [7]

A particular type of outside spending that is of special concern is candidate-specific super PACs. Big donors are using these groups to evade limits on contributions directly to candidates. By super-sizing contributions that benefit specific candidates, the likelihood of corruption escalates because elected officials are pressured to repay big outside donors after the election. [8]

The results of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and other decisions couldn’t be clearer. Hundreds of millions of dollars from undisclosed donors are flooding our elections. Very wealthy donors are contributing millions of dollars. There is very strong evidence that this money is influencing who wins our elections, because the candidate supported by the most money usually wins. This was true for 94% of US House races and 82% of US Senate races in 2014.

As others have said, we have the best Congress money can buy. There is also strong evidence that our Congress returns the favor by supporting the wealthy interests that funded their elections and put them in office – to the detriment of the middle and working classes. We need look no further than Wall St. to see the evidence: corporate profits, stock prices, CEO pay, and investors’ wealth have never been higher. Yet, the middle and working class still struggle to make ends meet.

This is not democracy. We need to reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions through a Constitutional Amendment. In the meantime we need much stronger disclosure laws for campaign spending so we know who is trying to influence our votes. Unfortunately, Congress is very unlikely to strengthen disclosure laws, so it will be up to each state to do so.

More on what’s being done to address these issues, and on what you can do, in an upcoming post.

[1]       Waldman, P., 11/11/14, “This year’s biggest spenders,” The American Prospect

[2]       Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, and North Carolina.

[3]       Vandewalker, I., 11/10/14, “Outside spending and dark money in toss-up Senate races: Post-election update,” Brennan Center for Justice (http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/outside-spending-and-dark-money-toss-senate-races-post-election-update)

[4]       Vandewalker, I., 11/10/14, see above

[5]       OpenSecrets.org, 10/29/14, “Overall Spending Inches Up in 2014: Megadonors Equip Outside Groups to Capture a Bigger Share of the Pie,” Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2014/10/overall-spending-inches-up-in-2014-megadonors-equip-outside-groups-to-capture-a-bigger-share-of-the-pie/)

[6]       Miller, J., 11/5/14, “Top 5 Senate races where dark money and outside spending ran wild,” The American Prospect

[7]       Choma, R., 11/5/14, “Money won on Tuesday, but rules of the game changed,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2014/11/money-won-on-tuesday-but-rules-of-the-game-changed/)

[8]       Vandewalker, I., 10/21/14, “Election Spending 2014: 9 Toss-Up Senate Races,” Brennan Center for Justice (http://www.brennancenter.org/publication/election-spending-2014-9-toss-senate-races)

VOTING MATTERS

ABSTRACT: Election Day is just over a week away. Although it’s easy to look at the dysfunction in Washington and the huge amounts of money being spent on campaigns and feel that voting and participating in the election doesn’t matter, that would be wrong. There will be lots of close elections this year all across the country – both for elected officials and for citizen’s initiatives that will be on the ballot. There are vested interests, usually corporations and wealthy individuals, and in many cases the Republicans have been their allies, who are trying to keep or discourage people from voting. Therefore, it is important to get out and vote, and to encourage others to do so, to send a message that these efforts to suppress voting, which are blatantly anti-democratic, won’t work.

There are many good candidates and important citizens’ initiatives on the ballot that deserve and need our votes. Even if there aren’t candidates or ballot questions that are important to vote for in your district, you can make phone calls to encourage people to vote (in your district or others) and you can donate money to out-of-your-district candidates that share your views or to organizations that support your views. If you want to support progressive candidates, an easy way to do so is through the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) at http://boldprogressives.org/. Move On.org is another, similar organization that you can support through donations, signing their petitions on a range of issues, or supporting out-of-your-district candidates through them: http://front.moveon.org/.

This is going to be a close election at the local level and nationally. The implications for our democracy are extremely significant. We need to send a message to our politicians that we, the voters, are the voice of democracy and that we want government that works. They need to know that we want them to represent our interests, not those of large corporations and the very wealthy.

FULL POST: Election Day is just over a week away. Although it’s easy to look at the dysfunction in Washington and the huge amounts of money being spent on campaigns and feel that voting and participating in the election doesn’t matter, that would be wrong.

There will be lots of close elections this year all across the country – both for elected officials and for citizen’s initiatives that will be on the ballot – where a few voters will make all the difference. The results in these races will matter. Moreover, there are vested interests, usually corporations and wealthy individuals, and in many cases the Republicans have been their allies, who are trying to keep or discourage people from voting. They do so because they know that their supporters will vote and the lower they can keep the voter turnout, the more likely they are to win.

They work to keep voting down in two main ways. First, they enact laws and voting procedures that make it harder to vote. These voting barriers primarily affect low income and minority voters. They also disproportionately affect seniors and women. These groups are more likely to vote for progressive politicians and policies, as well as for Democrats. Therefore, these wealthy and corporate interests want to reduce voting by people in these groups. [1] [2] [3]

Second, the wealthy and corporate interests engage in massive funding of negative campaign ads. These discourage voters and make them cynical. They also introduce doubts into voters’ minds about good candidates. The huge number of these negative ads and their repetition drowns out other information and shifts voters’ perceptions even when the message presented is distorted or false. This applies to ballot questions as well as candidates.

Therefore, it is important to get out and vote, and to encourage others to do so, simply to send a message that these efforts to suppress voting, which are blatantly anti-democratic, won’t work. The higher the voter turnout, the closer we are to having the true democracy that is America’s ideal.

There are many good candidates on the ballot that deserve and need our votes. In some cases, it may not be an ideal candidate, but there often are significant differences between the candidates, nonetheless. There also are important citizens’ initiatives or questions on the ballot that will make important policy changes. [4]

Even if there aren’t candidates or ballot questions that are important to vote for in your district, there are two things you can do to help candidates in other districts, if you are so motivated. You can make phone calls to encourage people to vote (i.e., get out the vote or GOTV calls) in your district or others. These are very important because without a Presidential election on the ballot turnout tends to be low, and, as I mentioned above, there are active efforts to keep and discourage people from voting. Therefore, encouragement to get out and vote can make a difference.

The other thing you can do is donate money to out-of-your-district candidates that share your views or to organizations that support your views. Any amount helps. If many people give just $5.00, it can add up to a significant amount.

If you want to support progressive candidates – what some people are referring to as the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party – an easy way to do so is through the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) at http://boldprogressives.org/. Key issues for PCCC are taking back our democracy from wealthy individuals and corporations, expanding Social Security, fixing Wall St., and addressing the burden of student loan debt. If you click on the collage of four faces at the top of their web page, you will get a list of candidates they support. You can easily decide which ones you’d like to support and how much to contribute (as little as $3). If you click on the Call Out The Vote box right next to the faces, you’ll be given information on how you can make GOTV calls.

Move On.org is another organization that you can support through donations, signing their petitions on a range of issues, or supporting out-of-your-district candidates through them: http://front.moveon.org/. They support issues and candidates that are similar to those of PCCC.

This is going to be a close election at the local level and nationally. The implications for our democracy are extremely significant. We need to send a message to our politicians that we, the voters, are the voice of democracy and that we want government that works. They need to know that we want them to represent our interests, not those of large corporations and the very wealthy.

[1]       Moyers, B., 10/24/14, “The Fight — and the Right — to Vote,” Moyers & Company (http://billmoyers.com/episode/fight-right-vote/)

[2]       Boston Globe Editorial, 10/18/14, “Voter ID laws: Study proves the obvious,” The Boston Globe

[3]       Dubose, L., 9/1/14, “The party of Lincoln takes aim at Black voters,” The Washington Spectator

[4]       Hightower, J., Oct. 2014, “Election 2014: A politics that matters is bubbling up,” The Hightower Lowdown (http://www.hightowerlowdown.org/)

DEMOCRATIZING CAMPAIGN FINANCING

ABSTRACT: We need to change our system of financing political campaigns. Candidates need to be able to run viable campaigns based on the financial support of average voters, and without the support of the small number of wealthy donors who dominate current campaign funding. Many people who would make great elected representatives don’t even run for office because they don’t have access to the money needed to run a credible campaign.

We can make small contributions more valuable by matching them with public funds. The Government by the People Act (HR 20) has been introduced in the US House and would match contributions of up to $150 with $6 of public funds for every dollar of private funds. Campaign financing systems that match small contributions are already in place in states from Maine to Arizona and in New York City. They amplify the voice of small donors and blunt the influence of large donors. As a result, the number of people running and the competition for elected offices has increased. To encourage more voters to be contributors, a voucher or tax credit could be provided to each citizen to be used to support a candidate for federal office.

By democratizing campaign financing, we regain democracy by getting our elected representatives to represent us instead of big campaign donors. In previous posts, I mentioned the effort to raise $12 million to fund the Mayday PAC, which would support candidates for Congress who support campaign finance reform. I’m happy to report that the fundraising effort was successful and the Mayday PAC is now selecting the 5 or so races that it will target in 2014.

FULL POST: We need to change our system of financing political campaigns. Candidates need to be able to run viable campaigns based on the financial support of average voters. As long as the support of the small number of wealthy donors who contribute more than $200 (less than 1% of the population) is necessary, our elected representatives are likely to at least lean toward representing those donors’ views and interests, instead of the broader, public interest. Keep in mind that not only does the candidate with the most money usually win, but many people who would make great elected representatives don’t even run for office because they don’t have access to the money needed to run a credible campaign under the current campaign financing system.

One solution would be to remove all private money from public elections. Campaigns would be paid for with public money. Proposals to do this have been put forward and such legislation has been filed in Congress, but this approach is unlikely to garner much support and would almost certainly require a Constitutional amendment.

A more feasible strategy, supported by individuals on both the right and left, wouldn’t remove private money from public elections but would make small contributions much more valuable and make campaigns based on them much more possible.

We can make small contributions more valuable by matching them with public funds. The Government by the People Act (HR 20) has been introduced in the US House and would match contributions of up to $150 with $6 of public funds for every dollar of private funds. Therefore, a $50 contribution would provide the candidate with $350. To qualify for the matching funds, a candidate for Congress would have to raise $50,000 in contributions of $150 or less from at least 1,000 donors in his or her home state. The candidate could not accept contributions of more than $1,000, could not accept PAC money, and would be strictly limited in the use of his or her own money in the campaign. Including these contribution caps is essential to limit the role of wealthy interests and is a reasonable and legal trade-off for receiving public matching funds. A similar bill, the Fair Elections Now Act, has been introduced in the US Senate.

You can get lots more information and all the details of these bills here (http://ofby.us/) and sign on as a citizen co-sponsor here (http://ofby.us/citizen-cosponsor/). Contacting your Representative and Senators to let them know you support this legislation would be valuable as well.

Forty groups have already endorsed this legislation: good government groups such as Common Cause, public interest groups such as the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, labor unions such as the National Education Association and the Communications Workers of America, and civil rights groups such as the NAACP.

Campaign financing systems that match small contributions, as these bills in Congress would, are already in place in states from Maine to Arizona and in New York City. They amplify the voice of small donors and blunt the influence of large donors. They also allow average citizens to run competitive campaigns. As a result, the number of people running and the competition for elected offices has increased where these financing systems are in place. This results in greater representation of the common interest and reduced influence for special interests.

To increase the number of small contributions and to encourage more voters to be contributors, a voucher or tax credit could be provided to each citizen to be used to support a candidate for federal office. The voucher or tax credit, in effect, makes the contribution free for the voter. The Government by the People Act proposes a $25 tax credit. Amounts ranging from $25 to $200 have been proposed. Increased numbers of contributors results in a more engaged and committed public, as well as elected officials who are more responsive to the public good. [1]

Using matching funds, along with a voucher or tax credit, would give candidates a way to fund their campaigns through small contributions. As a result, candidates would have an incentive to work hard   from one election to the next to give the average voter (not just the wealthy ones) a reason to contribute to them. The increased number and value of small-dollar contributions can remove the influence of big money and big donors from campaigns. By democratizing campaign financing, we regain democracy by getting our elected representatives to represent us instead of big campaign donors.

We do need constitutional changes to control the spending outside of candidates’ campaigns. This will require reversing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions by making it clear that corporations do not have the same rights as human beings and that unlimited political spending is not the same as freedom of speech and can be regulated and limited in the interest of preserving democracy and preventing corruption. Resolutions calling for a Constitutional amendment have been introduced in both the House and Senate. In the Senate, a constitutional amendment allowing the regulation of money in politics has been approved in a committee and is headed to the floor for a vote of the full Senate.

The Constitutional amendment process is long and difficult. However, right now, we can make enormous progress on the financing of candidates’ campaigns in a much easier and quicker way   through changes in campaign finance laws. To create pressure for politicians to face up to this campaign financing crisis, we all need to communicate with our elected officials and also to support the election of candidates who will address this problem.

In previous posts, I mentioned the effort to raise $12 million to fund the Mayday PAC, which would support candidates for Congress who support campaign finance reform. I’m happy to report that the fundraising effort was successful and the Mayday PAC is now selecting the 5 or so races that it will target in 2014. [2] If you’d like to suggest a candidate it should support or oppose you can do so here: https://mayday.us/suggest-a-candidate/.

Reforms of our campaign finance system are critical to reclaiming democracy and moving back toward the fundamental principle of one person, one vote. In the current system, it’s dollars that matter; money determines who runs, who wins, and what policies are enacted. Right now, big donors – wealthy individuals and corporations – are drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens. We must fight back.

[1]       Overton, S., 11/13/12, “The participation interest,” The Georgetown Law Journal (http://georgetownlawjournal.org/articles/the-participation-interest/)

[2]       Lessig, L., 6//4/14, “What’s so bad about a Super PAC?” https://medium.com/law-of-the-land/whats-so-bad-about-a-superpac-c7cbcf617b58

POLITICAL MONEY AND INFLUENCE OF THE WEALTHY GROWS AND GROWS

ABSTRACT: The political money and influence of the wealthy grows and grows. Wealthy donors making large contributions of up to $2,600 directly to Congressional candidates’ campaigns represent the great majority of candidates’ funding. There had been an overall limit of $123,200 on the grand total any individual could contribute in a two-year federal election cycle. However, the Supreme Court just ruled that this limit is an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech. A wealthy individual can now contribute roughly $3.6 million directly to candidates and parties in every 2-year election cycle.  (This is in addition to the unlimited money they can spend on campaign advocacy outside of candidates’ campaign accounts based on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.)

Furthermore, a donor can gather checks from colleagues and friends and present them to the candidate along with his or her own check. This is a practice known as “bundling.” Often these bundlers pledge to raise $100,000 or more for a candidate.

Candidates spend 30% to 70% of their time raising money. If they can raise money in bigger chunks, they will. Therefore, candidates focus on the few big “funders” of campaigns. These big contributors or bundlers have more than an adequate incentive to contribute because it ensures that candidates hear their particular views and that candidates have an incentive to support big contributors’ views when policy is made.

The result is that our “democracy” is not representing us – the average voter. What we have here in the US is increasingly a plutocracy: government dominated by the small minority that are the wealthiest citizens. Coming up in my next post: strategies for reforming our system of financing campaigns to reclaim our democracy.

FULL POST: The political money and influence of the wealthy grows and grows. Wealthy donors making large contributions of up to $2,600 directly to Congressional candidates’ campaigns represent the great majority of candidates’ funding. Candidates for Congress raise only about 11% of their campaign contributions from donors giving less than $200.

Beyond donations to candidates’ campaigns, wealthy individuals can also give up to $32,400 per year to a national political party. There had been an overall limit of $123,200 on the grand total any individual could contribute in a two-year federal election cycle. However, the Supreme Court just ruled that this limit is an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech in its McCutcheon decision.

Although the limit on a contribution to any candidate’s campaign or to a party remains (for now, see below), a wealthy individual can now contribute roughly $3.6 million directly to candidates and parties in every 2-year election cycle. [1] Through joint fundraisers and committees, wealthy contributors will now be solicited to write a single check for hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not a million dollars or more. (This is in addition to the unlimited money they can spend on campaign advocacy outside of candidates’ campaign accounts based on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.)

A court challenge to the contribution limit on donations to party committees has been filed by the Republican National Committee [2] and a challenge to the limit on contributions to individual candidates’ campaigns is likely. If successful, these challenges would allow wealthy individuals, and perhaps corporations, to give unlimited amounts of money directly to political candidates and parties.

Furthermore, a donor can gather checks from colleagues and friends and present them to the candidate along with his or her own check. This is a practice known as “bundling,” and the donor’s sway with the candidate is, of course, enhanced by delivering these large sums to the candidate’s campaign. Often these bundlers pledge to raise $100,000 or more for a candidate – far beyond the individual limit of $2,600.

Imagine you’re a candidate running for political office. You can either try to raise $100,000 from a thousand people in $100 contributions (a big contribution for most people), or you can try to raise $100,000 from 40 wealthy individuals or via one bundler. Candidates spend 30% to 70% of their time raising money. If they can raise money in bigger chunks, they will. Therefore, candidates focus on the few big “funders” of campaigns, because with each big catch they can cover much more of their campaign costs. [3] These big contributors, now more than ever, will be national figures, not ones with any connection to a candidate’s district or state.

Edwin Bender of the National Institute on Money in State Politics notes that “contribution limits play a crucial role in … increasing the participation rate by small-dollar donors.” [4] So as the Supreme Court eliminates contribution limits as unconstitutional limits on freedom of speech, the candidates focus on fewer and fewer donors who contribute larger and larger amounts. These big contributors or bundlers have more than an adequate incentive to contribute because it ensures that candidates hear their particular views  – about regulation, government spending, limits on lawsuits, trade, workers’ protections, intellectual property right s, or whatever – and that candidates have an incentive to support big contributors’ views when policy is made.

In a recent study from Princeton (the largest empirical analysis of government policy decision making to-date), Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page conclude that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial … impacts on U.S. governmental policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no … influence.” [5]

With candidates dependent on big contributors for the money necessary to run a competitive campaign, it’s not surprising that policies reflect the interests of these contributors and not the average citizen. The result is that our “democracy” is not representing us – the average voter – and therefore is not working as our founders intended. What we have here in the US is increasingly a plutocracy: government dominated by the small minority that are the wealthiest citizens.

Coming up in my next post: strategies for reforming our system of financing campaigns to reclaim our democracy by making our elected officials beholden to us. As a result, they would have incentives to represent us instead of wealthy individuals and corporations.

[1]       Lee, C., 5/5/14, “The fatter the wallet, the louder the voice,” Brennan Center for Justice (http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/fatter-wallet-louder-voice)

[2]       Money in Politics Newsletter, 5/29/14, “The aftermath of McCutcheon v. FEC,” Brennan Center for Justice (http://www.brennancenter.org/newsletter/money-politics-newsletter-mccutcheons-aftermath-primary-fundraising)

[3]       Lessig, L., 6//4/14, “What’s so bad about a Super PAC?” https://medium.com/law-of-the-land/whats-so-bad-about-a-superpac-c7cbcf617b58

[4]       Bender, E., 5/13/13, “Evidencing a republican form of government: The influence of campaign money on state-level elections,” Montana Law Review (http://www.followthemoney.org/press/Reports/Evidencing_a_Republican_Form_of_Government.pdf)

[5]       Gilens, M., & Page, B., 4/9/14, “Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens,” (http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf)

THE RISE OF DARK MONEY IN CAMPAIGNS

ABSTRACT: An increasing amount and proportion of election spending is coming from non-profit organizations that do not disclose their donors. This so-called “dark money” keeps voters in the dark about who is trying to influence their votes. Legislation to require disclosure of donors to “dark money” groups has been introduced at the federal level and in a number of state legislatures.

We need Representatives and Senators in Congress who will reform our campaign finance system. Ironically, there is a super PAC being formed to elect Congress people who will reform our campaign finance system. I urge you to join this effort now. Please go to the MAYDAY Super PAC site (https://mayday.us/old) to participate.

FULL POST: An increasing amount and proportion of election spending is coming from non-profit organizations that do not disclose their donors. They claim to be social welfare organizations [501(c)(4)s] or professional trade associations [501(c)(6)s] despite spending millions of dollars on political activity. [1] This so-called “dark money” keeps voters in the dark about who is trying to influence their votes.

In the 2014 election cycle to-date, three times as much dark money has been spent as had been spent at this point in 2012, even though that was a presidential election year. Furthermore, 2014 dark money spending to-date is almost 20 times that of the last mid-term election in 2010. [2] If the 2014 spending pattern is the same as in 2010, over $400 million of dark money will be spent by election day.

So far in the 2014 election cycle for the US Senate, groups outside and supposedly independent of candidates’ campaigns, are responsible for 59% of the TV ads aired, a big increase from 2012. More than half of those ads have been paid for by “dark money” groups that don’t disclose their donors. [3]

Legislation to require disclosure of donors to “dark money” groups has been introduced at the federal level and in a number of state legislatures. The federal DISCLOSE Act was filibustered in the US Senate in September 2010. (There were 59 votes in favor, a clear majority, but one short of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster.) A new version of the bill was introduced in 2012 but is stalled in the Senate.

In Massachusetts, and in some other states as well, legislation is progressing that would increase the disclosure of donors to political spending and the timeliness with which it must occur. The MA law would require disclosure of all donors promptly, before the election, so voters would know who was trying to influence their votes. [4] (If you live in Massachusetts, now would be a good time to call your legislators and urge them to support the timely disclosure of contributors to political spending). Super PACs are already running ads focused on the November election for Massachusetts’ Governor. [5] And in last year’s contest for Mayor in Boston, organizations independent of the candidates’ campaigns spent over $3.8 million, much of it dark money. This spending was more than two-thirds as much as the campaigns of the two finalists spent on their own ($5.4 million). [6]

The use of dark money is growing in part because wealthy individuals’ millions of dollars of campaign spending is receiving increased attention. Many of these wealthy individuals prefer to remain anonymous and therefore prefer to channel their exorbitant campaign spending through groups that do not report their donors. [7] Corporations similarly prefer to remain anonymous when they engage in political spending. So they are channeling their contributions through dark money groups as well. [8]

The Open Secrets project of the Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/) has been digging into the money spent in the 2012 campaigns by Super PACs and non-profit organizations. It has now documented a web of over a dozen such organizations that transferred money among themselves. This served to hide the true sources of campaign spending, delay any reporting of it, and circumvent IRS limits on political activity by non-profit, tax exempt organizations. [9] (See my post of 2/28/14 for more details.)

We need Representatives and Senators in Congress who will reform our campaign finance system to:

  • Require timely reporting of all political spending and contributors, so voters know before they vote who is spending money to influence their votes;
  • Severely limit political activity by non-profit, tax exempt organizations; and
  • Improve enforcement of existing campaign finance laws.

Ironically, there is a super PAC being formed to elect Congress people who will reform our campaign finance system. I urge you to join this effort now, as there is a July 4th deadline for raising $5 million to get this effort off the ground. Please go to the MAYDAY Super PAC site (https://mayday.us/old) to participate. If you’d like to make a contribution or pledge to this effort, you can do so through my pledge page at: https://my.mayday.us/t/35e1-John-Lippitt#_=_. (See my post of 6/10/14 for more information on the MAYDAY Super PAC.)

[1]       Center for Responsive Politics, 4/30/14, “OpenSecrets.org provides testimony, data for Senate Rules hearing on dark money,” https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2014/04/opensecrets-org-provides-testimony-data-for-senate-rules-hearing-on-dark-money/

[2]       Maguire, R., 4/30/14, “How 2014 is shaping up to be the darkest money election to date,” https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2014/04/how-2014-is-shaping-up-to-be-the-darkest-money-election-to-date/

[3]       Center for Responsive Politics, 4/30/14, see above

[4]       Phillips, F., 6/18/14, “Bill would increase super PAC disclosures,” The Boston Globe

[5]       Miller, J., 4/28/14, “Super PAC launches ads against Charlie Baker, Common Cause decries outside spending,” The Boston Globe

[6]       McMorrow, P., 11/12/13, “Citizens United comes to local races,” The Boston Globe

[7]       Gold, M., 5/30/14, “Attacks drive GOP donors to stealth nonprofits,” The Boston Globe from The Washington Post

[8]       Lessig, L., 6//4/14, “What’s so bad about a Super PAC?” https://medium.com/law-of-the-land/whats-so-bad-about-a-superpac-c7cbcf617b58

[9]       Maguire, R., 12/3/13, “At least 1 in 4 dark money dollars in 2012 had Koch links,” OpenSecretsblog (http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2013/12/1-in-4-dark-money-dollars-in-2012-c.html)

THE RISE OF SUPER PACs AND THE DEMISE OF DEMOCRACY

ABSTRACT: The rise of Super PACs (Political Action Committees) in the last four years and their ability, along with that of wealthy individuals and organizations, to spend unlimited amounts of money in US political campaigns are dramatically reshaping our politics. This is a new version of a very old game  –  pay to play – where private interests buy access and influence in our political system and policy making. As a result, independent spending – spending on political campaigns separate from and independent (theoretically) of the candidates’ campaign committees themselves – skyrocketed in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles to over $400 million, ten times its level in 2008.

In the two-year 2012 election cycle, 132 wealthy Americans provided 60 percent of the Super PAC money raised. Super PACs have become the primary vehicle through which the wealthy elite exert political influence that overwhelms the common good and the voice of the vast majority of the people. Super PACS are just the latest, but certainly the most toxic, in a trend of increasing spending and influence by wealthy special interests in our political system.

FULL POST: The rise of Super PACs (Political Action Committees) in the last four years and their ability, along with that of wealthy individuals and organizations, to spend unlimited amounts of money in US political campaigns are dramatically reshaping our politics. This is a new version of a very old game  –  pay to play – where private interests buy access and influence in our political system and policy making. [1]

First, a little historical background on the rise of political spending and influence by wealthy individuals and corporations. In 1976, the Supreme Court (in the Buckley vs. Valeo decision) declared that the First Amendment gave rich people the right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence political elections –  so long as that influence was “independent” of a political campaign. It also allowed them to spend unlimited sums on their own campaigns if they ran for an elected office.

In 2010, the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case gave corporations, unions, and other organizations the same right to spend unlimited money in political campaigns that it had given to rich people. In March, 2010, another court ruled that if rich people could spend as much as they want independently of any political campaign, they should also be free to contribute as much as they want to any independent political action committee. Thus the Super PAC was created – free to accept and spend unlimited amounts of money, so long as it did not coordinate with any candidate’s campaign (at least not openly). As a result, independent spending – spending on political campaigns separate from and independent (theoretically) of the candidates’ campaign committees themselves – skyrocketed in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles to over $400 million, ten times its level in 2008.

In the two-year 2012 election cycle, 132 wealthy Americans provided 60 percent of the Super PAC money raised. That number will go up in 2014. If it goes up to say 3,000, the funders of these Super PACs will still represent only a tiny minority of the 300 million Americans.

Super PACs have become the primary vehicle through which the wealthy elite exert political influence that overwhelms the common good and the voice of the vast majority of the people. That’s the “democracy” we have now –  a political system that has corrupted the intended representative democracy spelled out in our Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence.

Super PACS are just the latest, but certainly the most toxic, in a trend of increasing spending and influence by wealthy special interests in our political system. As they learn to effectively coordinate campaigns without technically coordinating (because that would be illegal), they are becoming a critical component of any effective political campaign. Candidates quickly learn the dance that assures that funding gets directed to the Super PACs that support them. However, there is, in effect, no accountability for the statements or actions of these Super PACs, as the candidates can claim a lack of knowledge and control of their actions.

The single greatest fear of any candidate, particularly any incumbent, is that thirty days before an election, some anonymously-funded Super PAC will spend $1 million against him or her. Therefore, candidates work to ensure that a Super PAC will be there to support them if needed. Candidates will position themselves as the kind of elected official a Super PAC wants to support and protect from a last minute assault.

My next post will discuss the growing presence of secret donors and “dark” money in our political campaigns because of Super PACs that do not disclose their donors. I’ll also review the increasing ability of wealthy donors to contribute large sums directly to candidates’ campaigns and the impact that all of this big money in our politics has on who runs for office. Then, I’ll present solutions to this corruption of our democracy, in addition to the MAYDAY Super PAC strategy, which I described in my previous post on 6/10/14.

 

[1]       Lessig, L., 6//4/14, “What’s so bad about a Super PAC?” https://medium.com/law-of-the-land/whats-so-bad-about-a-superpac-c7cbcf617b58 (This blog post is, in large part, a summarized excerpt from this article.)

A SUPER PAC TO END SUPER PACs – YOU CAN HELP!

ABSTRACT: We need to elect US Senators, Representatives, and ultimately a President who will support an end to Super PACs and unlimited money in our political campaigns. Lawrence Lessig is undertaking an innovative and counter-intuitive strategy to do so: creating a Super PAC to elect Congress people who will support the needed changes in our campaign financing laws. Lessig and his organization, Rootstrikers (http://www.rootstrikers.org/#!/), have developed a well thought out plan to do this, and you can be part of it.

 

In the 2014 elections, they plan to target a small number of races with the goal of winning at least 5 of them – if they can raise the $12 million needed to fund their plan. The plan raises half of the $12 million using a crowd-funded, kickstarter-type approach. Lessig has pledged to find a match for the $6 million raised through crowd-funding. The initial campaign was launched on May 1. In thirteen days, the targeted $1 million was raised, with 13,000 contributors giving an average of $87 per contribution. In June, the second round was launched with the goal of raising the other $5 million by July 4.

For more information and to participate in this effort, please go to the MAYDAY Super PAC site (https://mayday.us/old). If you’d like to make a contribution or pledge to this effort, you can do so through my pledge page at: https://my.mayday.us/t/35e1-John-Lippitt#_=_.

FULL POST: We need to elect US Senators, Representatives, and ultimately a President who will support an end to Super PACs and unlimited money in our political campaigns. However, this seems like a Catch-22 because these elected officials have been successful using the current system. For any candidate to single-handedly fight the current system is like unilateral disarmament; it’s essentially guaranteed to be a losing strategy.

So how do we solve this conundrum? Harvard Law School Professor and campaign reform advocate, Lawrence Lessig [1], is undertaking an innovative and counter-intuitive strategy: creating a Super PAC to elect Congress people who will support the needed changes in our campaign financing laws.

Lessig and his organization, Rootstrikers (http://www.rootstrikers.org/#!/), have developed a well thought out plan to do this [2], and you can be part of it.They are creating a Super PAC to literally end Super PACs. In the 2014 elections, they plan to target a small number of races with the goal of winning at least 5 of them – if they can raise the $12 million needed to fund their plan. This would allow them to learn what it takes to win campaigns and, second, by winning, to convince others to take this effort seriously. Then, they plan to undertake a much larger effort in 2016.

The plan raises half of the $12 million using a crowd-funded, kickstarter-type approach. The money will be raised in two stages – first, by raising $1 million in thirty days, and then, if that goal is met, raising another $5 million in the next thirty days. Lessig has pledged to find a match for the $6 million raised through crowd-funding, so that by July 4 the Super PAC would have the $12 million needed for the targeted 2014 campaigns.

The initial campaign was launched on May 1. This is “May Day,” which evokes the distress call, “MAYDAY,” and provides the name of the Super PAC: the MAYDAY PAC. In thirteen days, the targeted $1 million was raised, with 13,000 contributors giving an average of $87 per contribution. (I contributed $25.) In June, the second round was launched with the goal of raising the other $5 million by July 4. If that’s successful and the additional matches are found, the campaign will be kicked off with a goal of winning at least five races in 2014. This will build the momentum needed for a much bigger Super PAC and campaign in 2016. [3]

For more information and to participate in this effort, please go to the MAYDAY Super PAC site (https://mayday.us/old). If you’d like to make a contribution or pledge to this effort, you can do so through my pledge page at: https://my.mayday.us/t/35e1-John-Lippitt#_=_.

I do believe that our campaign financing system is at the root of the problems of our democracy and our society. I’ll share more information about the current state of our campaign finance system and background on this MAYDAY effort in subsequent posts. You can find past posts on this topic by clicking on the Campaigns: Financing & Voting category in the right sidebar of my blog (below the list of recent posts, the monthly archives, and the FOLLOW button).

[1]       For more information about Lawrence Lessig, see http://www.lessig.org/about/ or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Lessig.

[2]       Listen to Lessig’s 14 minute TED talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/lawrence_lessig_the_unstoppable_walk_to_political_reform?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed:+TEDTalks_video+(TEDTalks+Main+(SD)+-+Site)&utm_content=TED+talks&utm_term=NTechMedia.

[3]       Lessig, L., 6//4/14, “What’s so bad about a Super PAC?” https://medium.com/law-of-the-land/whats-so-bad-about-a-superpac-c7cbcf617b58 (This blog post is a summarized excerpt from this article.)

HOW MONEY IS CORRUPTING OUR POLITICS

ABSTRACT: Huge contributions and expenditures from wealthy special interests were front and center in the 2012 campaigns because of the unlimited spending allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The 32 biggest donors to Super PACs spent as much money as the total of all the donations by the 3.7 million Americans who made small donations to the Obama or Romney campaigns.

The Open Secrets project of the Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/) investigates and reports on money in campaigns. It has now documented a web of over a dozen organizations that transferred money among themselves to hide the true sources of campaign spending, so-called “dark money.” Dark money has been used in state, local, and national campaigns. Adding an international element to the dark money issue, federal prosecutors say a Mexican businessman illegally funneled more than $500,000 into U.S. political races through Super PACs and various shell corporations.

The amounts of money that candidates for Congress have to raise for their campaigns is staggering. A member of the US House needs to raise, on average, $15,000 each and every week; a Senator needs to raise $33,000 every week. Time spent fundraising is time that doesn’t get spent working on legislation or listening to and representing average constituents.

The dominance of money in campaigns, and of wealthy special interests in providing this money, skews the priorities and policy positions of elected officials. It corrupts the making of public policy. Reforms of our campaign finance system are needed and can be done now (within the context of the Supreme Court’s rulings) that:

  • Amplify the voices of average citizens and their small contributions to campaigns,
  • Require timely reporting of all campaign spending and contributions, and
  • Severely limit political activity by tax exempt organizations.

FULL POST: Huge contributions and expenditures from wealthy special interests were front and center in the 2012 campaigns because of the unlimited spending allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Private watchdog groups are continuing to trace and expose the sources and convoluted paths of money going from wealthy donors to campaign spending. This both exposes the donors (who often wish to remain secret) and illustrates the need for reform. Here are a few examples of their extensive findings.

The 32 biggest donors to Super PACs spent as much money as the total of all the donations by the 3.7 million Americans who made small donations to the Obama or Romney campaigns. [1] The two Koch brothers, billionaires due to their oil and industrial corporations, spent at least $400 million on campaigns in 2012, which is more than John McCain’s entire presidential campaign spent in 2008. [2] And fewer than 300,000 individuals (one-tenth of one percent of the 300 million Americans) provided the majority, roughly 60%, of the money raised by Congressional candidates from individuals. [3]

The Open Secrets project of the Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/) investigates and reports on money in campaigns. It has been digging into the money spent in the 2012 campaigns by Super PACs and social welfare groups (tax exempt 501(c)(4) organizations). It has now documented a web of over a dozen organizations that transferred money among themselves to hide the true sources of campaign spending, delay any reporting of it, and circumvent IRS limits on political activity by non-profit, tax exempt organizations. It has also documented that at least one quarter of the so-called “dark money” – money where the source was hidden – was linked to the two Koch brothers. [4]

Dark money was used in state as well as national campaigns. In California, an $11 million campaign contribution of dark money by a non-profit, tax exempt organization opposing a tax increase sparked an inquiry by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission and a grand jury investigation into violations of campaign finance laws and money laundering. A judge forced the Americans for Responsible Leadership, the apparent source of the contribution, to reveal the original source of the money. The money had come from the Center to Protect Patient Rights, another Arizona non-profit, which received the money from Americans for Job Security, a Virginia non-profit. Both of these organizations are connected to the Koch brothers’ political money network. The organizations have agreed to disgorge the $11 million contribution and pay a record $1 million fine. The investigation also uncovered a separate $4.1 million illegal contribution that now will also be disgorged. California is working to improve disclosure of campaign contributions and strengthen laws and regulations to stop dark money activity. [5]

Dark money has arrived at the local level as well. In the recent Boston mayoral election, organizations independent of the candidates’ campaigns spent over $3.8 million, much of it dark money. This spending had a significant impact as it was more than two-thirds as much as the campaigns of the two finalists spent on their own ($5.4 million). As a result, Massachusetts elected officials are working on laws that would tighten regulation of campaign spending, and, in particular, require disclosure of all donors promptly, before the election, so voters would know who was responsible for the spending. [6][7]

Adding an international element to the dark money issue, federal prosecutors say a Mexican businessman illegally funneled more than $500,000 into U.S. political races through Super PACs and various shell corporations. This is the first known instance of a foreign national exploiting the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to spend money on U.S. elections. The allegations surrounding Jose Susumo Azano Matsura, the owner of multiple construction companies in Mexico, include bankrolling a handful of southern California candidates. The scandal involves a U.S. congressman, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign firm, and the consequences of the Citizens United decision. That decision, which gives corporations the right to funnel donations to US candidates, allowed Matsura to obscure the true source of the donations and, therefore, the citizenship of the donor. [8]

The amounts of money that candidates for Congress have to raise for their campaigns is staggering. In 2012, the average cost of a wining campaign for the House was over $1.6 million and over $10.4 million for the Senate. That means that a member of the House, who runs for re-election every two years, needs to raise, on average, $15,000 each and every week. And a Senator needs to raise, on average, $33,000 every week. Newly elected members of Congress are typically told to spend four hours each day raising money. Time spent fundraising is time that doesn’t get spent working on legislation or listening to and representing average constituents. [9]

The dominance of money in campaigns, and of wealthy special interests in providing this money, skews the priorities and policy positions of members of Congress, and other elected officials, to favor the wealthy and special interests over the common good. In other words, it corrupts the making of public policy. Democracy – government of, by, and for the people – is perverted by the current role of money in our political system, where big money drowns out the voices and overwhelms the interests of average citizens.

Reforms of our campaign finance system are needed and can be done now (within the context of the Supreme Court’s rulings) that:

  • Amplify the voices of average citizens and their small contributions to campaigns;
  • Require timely reporting of all campaign spending and contributions (including bundling), so that voters know before they vote where the money is coming from;
  • Limit contributions that elected officials can receive from interests they oversee, from political committees, and from lobbyists;
  • Prohibit fundraising by elected officials during normal working hours;
  • Severely limit political activity by tax exempt organizations and require them to report donors; and
  • Improve enforcement of existing campaign finance laws.

[1]       U.S. PIRG, 2/5/14, “US PIRG applauds the introduction of the Government by the People Act,” U.S. PIRG

[2]       Hight, C., 2/6/14, “Government by the people, not the polluters,” The Huffington Post

[3]       Lioz, A., Feb. 2014, “The Government by the People Act,” Demos (http://www.demos.org/publication/government-people-act)

[4]       Maguire, R., 12/3/13, “At least 1 in 4 dark money dollars in 2012 had Koch links,” OpenSecretsblog (http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2013/12/1-in-4-dark-money-dollars-in-2012-c.html)

[5]       Blumenthal, P., 10/24/13, “California settles ‘dark money’ case,” The Huffington Post

[6]       McMorrow, P., 11/12/13, “Citizens United comes to local races,” The Boston Globe

[7]       Levenson, M., 11/12/13, “Bill would order fast disclosure of donors,” The Boston Globe

[8]       ManfromMiddletown, 2/13/14, “This is how Citizens United dies,” Daily Kos (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/02/13/1277252/-This-is-How-Citizens-United-Dies#)

[9]       Jan, T., 5/12/13, “They go to lead, but courting cash is now job 1,” The Boston Globe

STOPPING THE CORRUPTION OF MONEY IN POLITICS

ABSTRACT: There’s good news on multiple fronts in the effort to stop the corruption of big money in US political campaigns. In the US House, the Government by the People Act (HR 20) has been introduced. It would match small donations – up to $150 – from individuals 6 to 1 so that, for example, a $25 donation would be worth $175 to a candidate running for Congress. In addition, every person who files an income tax return could get a $25 credit for small donations to Congressional candidates. A similar bill, the Fair Elections Now Act, has been introduced in the US Senate.

Meanwhile, last November, the IRS put out proposed regulations to severely limit political activity by tax exempt, non-profit organizations, which spent $300 million on political activities in the 2012 elections. Such regulations would be a huge step toward ending the huge amounts of “dark money” – where the source was hidden – that flowed into campaigns in 2012.

These reforms of our campaign finance system are a critical step in moving back toward the fundamental principle of one person, one vote. In the current system, it’s dollars that matter. In various ways, big donors buy election results. The Supreme Court has ruled that the money of the wealthy and corporations cannot be limited or regulated, because it is speech. Therefore, we must amplify the voices of the rest of us and require disclosure of all campaign contributions and spending. Otherwise, the integrity and legitimacy of our democracy is threatened, and people will justifiably conclude that the system is rigged and that their voices and interests are being drowned out by the money of wealthy individuals and corporations.

FULL POST: There’s good news on multiple fronts in the effort to stop the corruption of big money in US political campaigns. Bills have been filed in Congress to amplify and encourage the voices and money of small donors. The IRS has proposed rules that would require greater disclosure and limit political spending by tax exempt groups.

In the US House, the Government by the People Act (HR 20) has been introduced with 130 House members as co-sponsors (out of 435 total members). It would match small donations – up to $150 – from individuals 6 to 1 so that, for example, a $25 donation would be worth $175 to a candidate running for Congress.

To qualify for the matching funds, a candidate would have to raise $50,000 in contributions of $150 or less from at least 1,000 donors in their home state. The candidate could not accept contributions of more than $1,000, could not accept PAC money, and would be strictly limited in the use of their own money in the campaign.

In addition, every person who files an income tax return could get a $25 credit for small donations to Congressional candidates. (A similar tax credit existed from 1972 to 1986.) Disclosure laws would be tightened so the source of all contributions would have to be publicly disclosed. [1][2]

A similar bill, the Fair Elections Now Act, has been introduced in the US Senate. It shares the goal of super-sizing the influence of small donors and allowing candidates to run competitive races for Congress while relying on small donations from regular people.

You can get lots more information and all the details of these bills here (http://ofby.us/) and sign on as a citizen co-sponsor here (http://ofby.us/citizen-cosponsor/).

Forty groups have already endorsed this legislation: good government groups such as Common Cause, public interest groups such as the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, labor unions such as the National Education Association and the Communications Workers of America, and civil rights groups such as the NAACP.

Campaign funding systems that match small contributions, as the bills in Congress would, are already in place in states from Maine to Arizona and in New York City. They amplify the voice of small donors and blunt the impact of large donations. This allows average citizens to run competitive campaigns. As a result, the number of people running and the competition for elected offices has increased where these matching systems are in place. This results in greater representation of the common interest and reduced influence for special interests.

Meanwhile, last November, the IRS put out proposed regulations to severely limit political activity by tax exempt, non-profit organizations. Abetted by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, non-profit, tax exempt “social welfare” organizations spent $300 million on political activities in the 2012 elections. They can accept unlimited donations and do not have to disclose donors. They can run political ads, engage in other political activities, and make grants to other “social welfare” groups. Although the tax code says these organizations, known as 501(c)(4)s, cannot be engaged primarily in political activity, they easily got around this by claiming the ads and other activities were not political and had some kind of educational or civic purpose.

After ignoring this political activity for years, the IRS has now proposed excluding “candidate-related political activity” from the definition of social welfare activities. This would ban a wide range of political activities, unless they meet a strict nonpartisan test. Such regulations would be a huge step toward ending the huge amounts of “dark money” – where the source was hidden – that flowed into campaigns in 2012. These regulations on political activity should apply to any group, organized under any section of the IRS rules, that doesn’t have to disclose contributors, including business leagues (such as chambers of commerce) and unions. [3]

These reforms of our campaign finance system are a critical step in moving back toward the fundamental principle of one person, one vote. In the current system, it’s dollars that matter; 84% of the time the candidate with the most money won election to the House in 2012. Money also determines who runs and big donors drown out the voices of ordinary citizens in campaigns. In various ways, big donors buy election results.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the money of the wealthy and corporations cannot be limited or regulated, because it is speech. Therefore, we must amplify the voices of the rest of us (which the two bills in Congress will do) and require disclosure of all campaign contributions and spending. Otherwise, the integrity and legitimacy of our democracy is threatened, and people will justifiably conclude that the system is rigged and that their voices and interests are being drowned out by the money of wealthy individuals and corporations.

My next post will give examples of campaign spending that illustrate the need for reforms.


 

[1]       Hight, C., 2/6/14, “Government by the people, not the polluters,” The Huffington Post

[2]       Lioz, A., Feb. 2014, “The Government by the People Act,” Demos (http://www.demos.org/publication/government-people-act)

[3]       The Editorial Board, 2/18/14, “Change the rules on secret money,” The New York Times

ENDING THE CORRUPTION OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY

ABSTRACT: Whatever your politics – Democratic, Republican or independent; conservative, moderate, or progressive – most people are frustrated that issues they believe are important aren’t being addressed by Congress. The fuel that is really driving this paralysis is Big Money in our political campaigns. It is distorting the operation of government and corrupting our democracy. This corruption is the result of concentrated wealth and power in corporations and wealthy individuals who use their money to buy influence over our government and its politics and policies. Many members of the House and Senate spend more time meeting with lobbyists and special interest groups and fundraising for their next campaign than they do on legislation and representing the people who voted to send them to Washington.

The most immediate action we can take is to push for passage of a carefully designed law that reduces and exposes the flow of political money and influence without violating the Supreme Court’s rulings on freedom of speech. The American Anti-Corruption Act (AACA) is a bold, comprehensive law that does this. I urge you to support it by learning more about it (see below for a summary) and becoming a citizen co-sponsor at http://anticorruptionact.org.

FULL POST: Whatever your politics – Democratic, Republican or independent; conservative, moderate, or progressive – most people are frustrated that issues they believe are important aren’t being addressed by Congress. For some it’s fracking or climate change. For others it’s the federal debt, income inequality, gun violence, immigration, health care, regulation of the financial industry (or other corporations), military spending, trade treaties, or something else. Each is an important issue that can evoke strong debate and real passion.

All of these issues deserve a full and open debate, require compromise, and should receive votes on meaningful pieces of legislation. None is receiving it. The system is broken. The pundits and the media say this dysfunction and gridlock in Congress reflect the deep partisan divide in the U.S. However, the fuel that is really driving this paralysis is Big Money in our political campaigns. It is distorting the operation of government and corrupting our democracy.

This corruption is the result of concentrated wealth and power in corporations and wealthy individuals who use their money to buy influence over our government and its politics and policies. We cannot expect action on important issues until we end this corruption, which is deep and pernicious, and threatens the heart of our democratic system. Today, many members of the House and Senate spend more time meeting with lobbyists and special interest groups and fundraising for their next campaign than they do on legislation and representing the people who voted to send them to Washington.

The most immediate action we can take is to push for passage of a carefully designed law that reduces and exposes the flow of political money and influence without violating the Supreme Court’s rulings on freedom of speech. The American Anti-Corruption Act (AACA) is a bold, comprehensive law that does this. The campaign to promote it has been launched nationally by a nonpartisan group, Represent.Us (https://represent.us).

Here is what the American Anti-Corruption Act would do:

1)  Prohibit members of Congress from a) receiving contributions from the interests they oversee, and b) fundraising during congressional working hours;

2)  Build the influence of small contributors by creating a $100 tax rebate that registered voters can use to contribute to federal candidates;

3)  Require candidates to disclose the names of individuals (known as “bundlers”) who gather and package together multiple contributions, thereby presenting large sums of money to candidates;

4)  Limit the amount that lobbyists and their clients can contribute to federal candidates, political parties, and political committees to $500 per year;

5)  Limit political action committees’ contributions and their coordination with political campaigns and parties;

6)  Mandate full, timely reporting of all spending of $10,000 or more on political activities;

7)  Expand the legal definition of a lobbyist so anyone trying to influence our lawmakers has to play by the lobbying rules;

8)  Close the “revolving door” through which former elected officials and their staffs capitalize on their connections and influence in high-paying lobbying jobs when they leave office; and

9)  Strengthen enforcement of campaign finance laws.

I urge you to support the American Anti-Corruption Act by learning more about it and becoming a citizen co-sponsor at http://anticorruptionact.org.

SUPREME COURT UPDATES

ABSTRACT: Here are three quick updates related to the US Supreme Court. First, issues with the conduct and ethics of a couple of the Justices have arisen in part because Supreme Court Justices are not covered by the Code of Conduct that applies to all other US judges. A Supreme Court Ethics Act of 2013 is being proposed in Congress that would require the Court to adopt a code of conduct similar to the one for other judges.

Second, Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg recently articulated what many legal scholars have been saying: that the current Court is “one of the most activist courts in history” based on its “readiness to overturn legislation” and judicial precedents.

Third, the Supreme Court will be considering cases in the upcoming year that will produce major decisions. These will give further indications of how the Court is balancing precedent and deference to legislative intent with ideology and activism. On the campaign financing front, the Court will consider a case that challenges the total, or aggregate, contribution limit of $123,200 on what an individual can give directly to all candidates for federal offices combined over the 2 year election cycle.

FULL POST: First, issues with the conduct and ethics of a couple of the Supreme Court Justices have arisen. The Supreme Court Justices are not covered by the Code of Conduct for United States Judges. A number of situations have occurred with Supreme Court Justices that under the Code would have been prohibited or would have required Justices to refrain from participating in certain cases due to apparent conflicts of interest. For example, Justice Thomas’s wife is a highly paid lobbyist who works on issues (health care for example) that have come before the Supreme Court. Justices Thomas and Scalia have attended and spoken at fundraisers and events for groups that are politically active on issues that have come before the Court. Neither has refrained from participating in any cases despite these apparent conflicts of interest.

Therefore, a Supreme Court Ethics Act of 2013 is being proposed in Congress that would require the Court to adopt a code of conduct similar to the one for other judges. The Justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, are, of course, opposed to the proposed legislation, asserting that they are capable of policing themselves. [1]

Second, Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg recently articulated what many legal scholars have been saying: that the current Court is “one of the most activist courts in history.” Her comment was based on the Court’s “readiness to overturn legislation”. Others have also noted its readiness to overturn judicial precedents, including ones of previous Supreme Court rulings. As examples of activism, Ginsburg highlighted the overturning of the Voting Rights Act and the ruling that the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) was not a constitutionally allowed use of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. [2] Other examples of activism cited by other legal scholars include the Citizens United decision (and others) on campaign financing, decisions on affirmative action, and the decision stopping the recounting of ballots in Florida for the 2000 presidential election. The reasoning given with these decisions is, in many cases, so convoluted that it is hard to view them as anything but ideological activism.

Third, the Supreme Court will be considering cases in the upcoming year that will produce major decisions. These will give further indications of how the Court is balancing precedent and deference to legislative intent with ideology and activism. Front and center among these cases will be ones on campaign financing and affirmative action.

On the campaign financing front, the Court will consider a case known as McCutcheon versus the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that challenges the total, or aggregate, contribution limit of $123,200 on what an individual can give directly to all candidates for federal offices combined over the 2 year election cycle. This amount is well over twice the income of the average American family. (Anyone can give unlimited amounts to Political Action Committees that are, at least theoretically, independent of the candidates themselves.) [3]

If this aggregate limit is thrown out, our campaign financing and our elections will be even further skewed toward wealthy individuals. The Supreme Court has previously upheld these aggregate contribution limits because they address both the reality and appearance that our elected officials are corrupted by the influence of money. In our democracy, every citizens’ vote and voice is supposed to be equally heard and represented. [4][5]


[1]       Mencimer, S., 7/31/13, “Democrats to introduce Supreme Court ethics bill,” Mother Jones

[2]       Liptak, A., 8/25/13, “Ginsburg calls court one of most activist,” The New York Times

[3]       Jones, J., 9/11/13, “Supreme Court Preview: McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission,” League of Women Voters (http://www.lwv.org/blog/supreme-court-preview-mccutcheon-v-federal-election-commission)

[4]       Kennedy, L., 9/10/13, “Stop the Next Citizens United,” Demos (http://www.demos.org/publication/stop-next-citizens-united)

[5]       Lioz, A., 7/26/13, “Is McCutcheon v. FEC the Next Citizens United?” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/mccutcheon-v-fec-next-citizens-united)

MOVING FORWARD ON CAMPAIGN FINANCE

ABSTRACT: A serious effort for campaign finance reform is moving forward in New York State. The citizen / public campaign financing system that is in place in New York City is a great model for the state’s efforts and others.

We need campaign finance reform because, for example, in the 2012 federal election campaigns over $7 billion was spent with the bulk of the money coming from wealthy individuals and corporations. One third of the roughly $1 billion spent by groups other than the candidates’ campaigns themselves was secret funds anonymously funneled through front groups created to launder the money and hide its source. The voices of average citizens – the 99% of us – are drowned out in the campaigns and in policy making by the megaphones and mega-dollars of the wealthy. Money in campaigns does matter. In 2012, more than 80 percent of US House candidates and two-thirds of Senate candidates who outspent their general election opponents won. As Justice Brandeis stated, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

New York City has a system of citizen funding for campaigns for city offices. It provides matching public funds that give candidates the opportunity to run for public office without dependence on large contributions from wealthy donors. Participants in these city races are getting the majority of their funding from a broad spectrum of small contributors, while candidates for the state legislature from the same area, without the citizen funding system, get the majority of their funding from large contributors.

At least 10 states and 7 cities have citizen / public campaign financing for at least some elections. You can find information on campaign financing and whether there is a reform effort in your state at the Public Campaign website (http://www.publicampaign.org/).

Citizen / public campaign financing is an essential step in making our elected officials accountable and responsive to the 99% of us, as opposed to wealthy campaign contributors.

FULL POST: A serious effort for campaign finance reform is moving forward in New York State. The citizen / public campaign financing system that is in place in New York City is a great model for the state’s efforts and others. [1]

We need campaign finance reform because, for example, in the 2012 federal election campaigns over $7 billion was spent. We have the best democracy money can buy and the bulk of the money came from wealthy individuals and corporations. Of course this means it isn’t a democracy at all, for the golden rule of US politics is that he who provides the gold, rules.

Each of the presidential candidates raised and spent over $1 billion. President Obama broke all records by attending a fundraiser on average every two and a half days throughout the long campaign. Is this really how we want our President – and our other elected officials – spending their time? The 435 races for the House of Representatives cost over $1 billion, or an average of $2.3 million per seat. The races for the 33 Senate seats up for election cost over $700 million, or an average of $21 million each.

One third of the roughly $1 billion spent by groups other than the candidates’ campaigns themselves was secret funds anonymously funneled through front groups created to launder the money and hide its source. For the Super Political Action Committees (PACs), which could raise and spend unlimited sums because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the top 32 donors gave an average of $10 million each and just 159 people donated 60% of their funds.

The great bulk of the $7 billion spent on the federal races in 2012 came in large amounts from wealthy individuals and corporations. The voices of average citizens – the 99% of us – are drowned out in the campaigns and in policy making by the megaphones and mega-dollars of the wealthy.

So there is no question that we need comprehensive campaign finance reform if we want government of, by, and for the people. As Justice Brandeis stated, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

New York City has a system of citizen funding for campaigns for city offices. It provides matching public funds that give candidates the opportunity to run for public office without dependence on large contributions from wealthy donors. Someone running for citywide office or for city council who wants to participate in the voluntary citizen financing system has to raise a qualifying amount in small contributions. A mayoral candidate has to raise $250,000 from at least 1,000 city residents. A City Council candidate has to raise $5,000 in small donations from at least 75 in-district residents.

Once a candidate has achieved the qualifying threshold, any contribution up to $175 is matched six to one by public funds. So a $25 contribution is worth $175, a $100 contribution is worth $700, and a $175 contribution is worth $1,225. Only contributions by residents of the City or district are matched, and any amount over $175 is not matched. In addition to the qualifying thresholds and matching funds, there are per election spending limits ($161,000 for City Council and a little over $6 million for Mayor) and disclosure requirements. [2]

Participants in these city races are getting the majority of their funding from a broad spectrum of small contributors, while candidates for the state legislature from the same area, without the citizen funding system, get the majority of their funding from large contributors. This citizen funding allows candidates to focus their attention on ordinary citizens, not those with deep pockets, and still raise an amount of money that’s sufficient to run a credible, competitive campaign. And it engages citizens, because somebody who contributes $10 to a campaign, is more likely to volunteer, is more likely to show up and vote, and is more likely to follow and engage with what happens in government after the campaign than someone who doesn’t contribute – because they don’t believe their small contribution matters.

This blunts the influence of the big money in multiple ways. Beyond the base amount needed to run a credible campaign, additional money has a diminishing marginal return (to use a term from economics). In other words, after a point, additional campaign spending just doesn’t have that much impact. That’s one of the reasons all the Super PAC money wasn’t as effective as many thought it would be in the 2012 elections – people just got tired of hearing the same message over and over.

But money does matter. In 2012, more than 80 percent of House candidates and two-thirds of Senate candidates who outspent their general election opponents won. And although money doesn’t often literally buy elected officials’ votes, it does corrupt some of them and it certainly gets their ears and may well get them to lean toward the interests of their contributors.

At least 10 states and 7 cities have citizen / public campaign financing for at least some elections. A serious effort to implement broad citizen / public financing of elections is underway in New York for state elections. You can find information on campaign financing and whether there is a reform effort in your state at the Public Campaign website (http://www.publicampaign.org/).

Citizen / public campaign financing is an essential step in making our elected officials accountable and responsive to the 99% of us, as opposed to wealthy campaign contributors. It was important before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited spending by wealthy interests, and it’s even more important now.


[1]       The majority of the content for this blog post is a summary of Bill Moyers’ show of 2/15/13, “The fight to keep democracy alive.” You can watch it at http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-the-fight-to-keep-democracy-alive/. A podcast is also available. As I probably don’t need to tell you, Bill’s shows are fantastic and I urge you to watch or listen to them regularly if possible, or whenever you can find the time.

[2]       Migally, A., & Liss, S., 2010, “Small donor matching funds: The NYC election experience,” Brennan Center for Justice, http://www.brennancenter.org/issues/public-financing

SHAMEFUL FAILURE TO ADDRESS GUN VIOLENCE

ABSTRACT: A filibuster in the US Senate just blocked passage of a law to require background checks on most gun buyers, despite the fact that 90% of Americans support these background checks; even 74% of National Rifle Association (NRA) members support them!

This reflects the power of money in politics – the money of the gun and ammunition makers and sellers. Their well-funded front organization, the NRA, only has about 2 million members, but wields outsized influence.

The facts make this failure to address gun violence shameful. In the four months since the Newtown massacre of 20 young children and 6 adults, over 3,500 people have died from gun violence. Roughly 30,000 people die each year from gun violence in the US. This is ten times as many as died on September 11th, but we spend far more time and money to prevent violence by terrorists than we do to prevent gun violence.

Contrary to the NRA’s rhetoric, guns do NOT make you safer: 1) For every use of a gun in self-defense at home, there are 11 suicide attempts, 7 assaults or murders, and 4 gun accidents; 2) Gun death rates are over three times higher in states with high gun ownership; and 3) Despite the claim that more armed civilians would stop mass shootings, this hasn’t happened once in the last 30 years.

In 1996, Australia banned automatic and semi-automatic weapons, required strict permitting and tracking of gun purchases, and purchased and destroyed about 700,000 firearms. The results are:

  • 59% decrease in firearm murders (without an increase in non-firearm murders)
  • 65% decrease in firearm suicides (without an increase in non-firearm suicides)
  • No gun massacres in the 16 years since enactment of the law compared with 13 massacres (in which 4 or more people died) in the 18 years before enactment
  • The murder rate has dropped to 1 per 1 million people. (The US rate is 33 times higher.)

The votes in the US Senate are profiles in cowardice. There is no reason for anyone other than law enforcement and the military to have automatic and semi-automatic weapons with magazines that hold over 10 bullets. I urge you to call, email, and / or write your federal and state elected officials and demand reasonable gun laws that will prevent future gun massacres.

FULL POST: A filibuster in the US Senate just blocked passage of a law to require background checks on most gun buyers. Although there was a majority of 54 votes in favor, the Republicans, abetted by four Democrats, obstructed progress. This occurred despite the fact that 90% of Americans support these background checks; even 74% of National Rifle Association (NRA) members support them! The Senate also failed to pass a provision banning the sales of assault weapons; there were only 40 votes in favor, even though 45% of gun owners support a ban on these weapons. [1]

This reflects the power of money in politics – the money of the gun and ammunition makers and sellers. While their lobbyists operate behind the scenes, their well-funded front organization, the NRA, operates in public. Although it only has about 2 million members (out of 300 million people in the US), which is only 5% of gun owners, and 30% of gun owners have an unfavorable opinion of the NRA, it wields outsized influence. Together, the money, the private lobbying, and the public publicity have banned federal research and data sharing on gun violence and perpetrated myths about guns and gun violence.

The facts make this failure to address gun violence shameful. In the four months since the Newtown massacre of 20 young children and 6 adults, over 3,500 people have died from gun violence. Roughly, 30,000 people die each year of gun violence in the US, 12,000 murders and 18,000 suicides. This is ten times as many as died on September 11th, but we spend far more time and money to prevent violence by terrorists than we do to prevent gun violence. There is also far more focus, effort, and resources spent to keep illegal immigrants out of this country than there is to keep guns out of the hands of illegal gun purchasers.

Contrary to the NRA’s rhetoric, guns do NOT make you safer:

  1. For every use of a gun for self-defense at home, there are 11 suicide attempts, 7 assaults or murders, and 4 accidents with a gun. Six times more women were shot by husbands, boyfriends, and ex-partners than were murdered by strangers. A women’s chance of being killed by her abuser is 7 times higher if he has access to a gun.
  2. Gun death rates are over three times higher in states with high gun ownership. The state with the highest gun ownership (Wyoming, over 60% of households) also has the highest rate of gun deaths (over 15 per 100,000 people). The state with the lowest gun ownership (Hawaii, less than 10% of households) also has the lowest rate of gun deaths (less than 5 per 100,000 people). The other states clearly demonstrate this relationship that more guns means more gun deaths.
  3. Despite the claim that more armed civilians would stop mass shootings, this hasn’t happened once in the last 30 years.
  4. Civilians in the US own roughly 310 million guns while law enforcement and the military have 4 million guns. Roughly a third of Americans own a gun, down from about half in 1973. The average gun owner has 8 guns. [2]

In terms of evidence to support the effectiveness of legislation to prevent gun violence, there is a very relevant example from Australia. In 1996, 35 people were killed in Australia by a gunman in a massacre reminiscent of those we have experienced recently here in the US. In response, Australia, under Conservative Prime Minister John Howard, banned automatic and semi-automatic weapons, required strict permitting and tracking of gun purchases, and purchased and destroyed about 700,000 firearms in a gun buyback program. [3]

The results are: [4][5]

  • 59% decrease in firearm murders (without an increase in non-firearm murders)
  • 65% decrease in firearm suicides (without an increase in non-firearm suicides)
  • No gun massacres in the 16 years since enactment of the law compared with 13 massacres (in which 4 or more people died) in the 18 years before enactment
  • The murder rate has dropped to 1 per 1 million people, a fortieth of what it was. (The US rate is 33 times higher.)

The votes in the US Senate are profiles in cowardice. Colorado, New York, and Connecticut have recently passed meaningful gun violence prevention laws. There is no reason for anyone other than law enforcement and the military to have automatic and semi-automatic weapons with magazines that hold over 10 bullets. Sensible gun laws, as evidenced by the Australian experience, would make a difference. (See my post of 12/16/12 for more detail.)

I urge you to call, email, and / or write your federal and state elected officials and demand reasonable gun laws that will prevent future gun massacres. I also encourage you to participate in on-line or local actions to express your support for common sense gun violence prevention laws.

It’s past time to take serious steps to reduce gun deaths and violence, as well as hopefully, eventually, to eliminate the occurrence of gun massacres – as Australia did. We must insist that our elected officials pass sensible gun violence prevention laws.


[1]       Jan, T., & Viser, M., 4/18/13, “Wider checks on guns rejected,” The Boston Globe

[2]       Gilson, D., March/April 2013 issue, “Hits and myths: Ten pro-gun claims that don’t stand up to fact-checking,” Mother Jones

[3]       An equivalent buyback program in the US would need to purchase and destroy 40 million guns.

[4]       Matthews, D., 8/2/12, “Did gun control work in Australia?” The Washington Post

[5]       Editorial Board, 12/18/12, “Australian gun control holds lessons for U.S.,” USA Today

CAMPAIGN SPENDING: THE FUTURE

ABSTRACT: The huge sums of money in our political system are corrupting it, in subtle and not so subtle ways, and are undermining the promise of democracy of, by, and for the people. We the people need to work to blunt the impact and eventually stop the flow of these huge amounts of money. Steps that could and should be taken include: 1) Legislation at the federal and state levels should be enacted promptly that requires disclosure on a timely basis of all political spending and the sources of the funds; 2) Lobbyists’ contributions to candidates must be severely restricted and perhaps prohibited; 3) Tougher rules and enforcement are needed of the ban on coordination between Super PACs or other groups and candidates’ campaigns; and 4) Ultimately, a Constitutional Amendment is needed to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

 I urge you to communicate to your elected representatives at the federal and state levels your concern about the corrupting influence of huge amounts of money in our political system. Ask them what remedies they support and encourage them to support the steps listed above.

FULL POST: The huge sums of money in our political system are corrupting it, in subtle and not so subtle ways, and are undermining the promise of democracy of, by, and for the people. Despite the fact that all the outside money and all the advertising it bought were less effective in the 2012 election than was anticipated and than was hoped for by those paying for it, the big spenders learned some valuable lessons. They won’t give up on their efforts to influence and control government and its policy making. They will find more effective ways to use their money and will have substantial impacts in the future. [1] Therefore, we the people need to work to blunt the impact and eventually stop the flow of these huge amounts of money.

First, some of the lessons the big spenders learned:

  • Advertising, and particularly negative advertising, has diminishing returns as the amount of it and repetition of it increases.
  • Grassroots efforts to identify and turn out supporters can have a big impact.
  • Grassroots, person-to-person communications can be more effective than advertising.
  • Untested candidates or ones with extreme positions are more likely to lose.
  • Money can have a bigger impact in less visible, lower cost races.

The less visible, lower cost races include primary, US House of Representatives, and state office races (as opposed to the final Presidential election and final US Senate races). In the Republican Presidential primary, the big money from Super PACs clearly had an effect. Money from the Super PAC supporting Romney deluged state primary elections with negative advertising against whichever competitor was threatening Romney at that point. This clearly allowed Romney to win state primaries he wouldn’t have won otherwise. Huge Super PAC expenditures by extremely rich individuals single-handedly kept Gingrich and Santorum in the primary race longer than they would have been otherwise. [2]

In lower cost races, a given amount of money (e.g., $100,000) is more significant, may overwhelm other campaign spending, and can have a disproportionate impact, especially if spent late in the election period and as a surprise. State office races such as those for Governor, state legislative seats, and elected judges can be dramatically affected by relatively small amounts of money. State ballot initiatives can also be significantly altered by relatively small sums of money.

Given the corrosive effects of huge amounts of money in our political system, a New York Times Editorial stated, “A backlash against the damaging power of big money cannot come too soon.” [3] Steps that could and should be taken include:

  • Legislation at the federal and state levels should be enacted promptly that requires disclosure on a timely basis of all political spending and the sources of the funds. The DISCLOSE Act that has been introduced in Congress is one example. (It was filibustered by Senate Republicans multiple times.) Disclosure must cover all entities engaged in political spending, including non-profit, “social welfare” groups, known as 501(c)(4)s to the IRS.
  • Lobbyists’ contributions to candidates must be severely restricted and perhaps prohibited, especially for an elected official sitting on the legislative committee that oversees the special interest the lobbyist represents. The definition of a lobbyist must be expanded to cover all individuals and entities that work to influence government policies, rules, and regulations. The ability of lobbyists and others to deliver aggregated contributions from multiple individuals or groups, often referred to as “bundling,” and which can occur through fundraising events organized by a lobbyist, should be banned or at least fully disclosed.
  • Tougher rules and enforcement are needed of the ban on coordination between Super PACs or other groups and candidates’ campaigns. The overlap and connections between candidates’ current and former campaign staff and the staff of the supposedly independent groups, and the use of the same consultants, provide clear evidence that these groups are not, in fact, independent. [4]
  • Ultimately, a Constitutional Amendment is needed to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, to make it clear that corporations are not persons with Constitutional rights, that money is not the same as speech, and that corporations and political spending can be regulated.

 I urge you to communicate to your elected representatives at the federal and state levels your concern about the corrupting influence of huge amounts of money in our political system. Ask them what remedies they support and encourage them to support the steps listed above.


[1]       New York Times Editorial, 11/10/12, “A landslide loss for big money,” The New York Times

[2]       Boston Globe Editorial, 11/8/12, “Billionaires: Now, mind your own business(es),” The Boston Globe

[3]       New York Times Editorial, 11/10/12, “A landslide loss for big money,” The New York Times

[4]       Boston Globe Editorial, 9/29/12, “As super PACs link arms, mega-donors’ clout increases,” The Boston Globe