Dueling Dollars Diminish American Democracy

The bottom line is that American voter participation in the electoral process has always been a fragile crucible. The influx of big money has put new cracks in that crucible - and if not stopped could shatter it altogether.
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Election Day 2014 is over. The winners have been declared.

But the true loser has not. That loser is democracy.

For the past week -- and undoubtedly for weeks to come -- story after story will be written about the reasons for and consequences of the Republican landslide, their gaining clear control of the Senate, and having the biggest majority in the House since the 1920s.

Only a precious few, however, will be written about the back story which is how money is contaminating our electoral process.

Shortly before the midterms were held, the Center for Responsive Politics (the Center) estimated that just south of $3.7 billion would be spent in the 2014 election cycle. This was only slightly more than the total expended in 2010. But as the Center notes in this year, "...outside money will have played an outsize role. And the number of identified individual donors will shrink, meaning more money will have come from fewer people."

It's not just the switch in who was doing the spending, it's also how that money was being "invested". In September - before things got really nasty later -, the Wesleyan Media Project reported that the 2014 general election advertising was starting off "even more negative than 2010 and 2012."

The change in 2014 went beyond buying more TV time to run negative ads. In this year, some "Super PACs" and advocacy groups did their own data mining and set up turnout organizations to get folks who would cast ballots favorable to their chosen candidates to the polling place.

Given the current rules of engagement, all of this is perfectly legal. The question is whether it promotes informed civic engagement and a healthy democracy.

In our opinion, the answer is straightforward - absolutely not! It gives more influence to the highest bidders; heightens the general public's already negative and cynical perceptions regarding politics and politicians; and alienates potential and prospective voters from the electoral process.

Who's to blame for this condition? The usual suspects would include: the major political parties, organized special interest groups, the wealthy, and the Supreme Court and its absurdly reasoned Citizens United decision.

There is no doubt that these suspects have some culpability for the diminished and diminishing status of our participative democracy. In perspective though, they are only contributors to our "democracy disease." The root cause or the primary blame must fall upon the American citizenry.

While many Americans preach the values of our democratic society, far too few of us practice what we preach. This is true on a number of fronts including: voting, protesting, and ensuring appropriate civic education for future generations of citizens. As the most telling example, let's look at voter participation.

The United States Election Project estimates that the turnout of eligible voters for the 2014 midterm election was a stunningly low 36.6%. This compares to nearly 42% in the 2010 midterm. The final turnout numbers may go up somewhat as absentee ballots are counted but if the national turnout doesn't hit 38.1% it will be the lowest since 1942.

Turnout in midterms is always lower than in presidential election years running around 40% or so as opposed to being in the 50-60+% range in the presidential years over the past three decades. It should be noted that this turnout is of the "voting eligible population" and not of the "voting age population". If voting age is used the turnout would be reduced substantially - by around 5% per election.

The bottom line is that American voter participation in the electoral process has always been a fragile crucible. The influx of big money has put new cracks in that crucible - and if not stopped could shatter it altogether.

There are a number of proposals to curb the influence of big money on elections.

Congressman John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has introduced a bill focused on congressional races. Sarbanes' legislation has three major elements: a $50 tax credit per donor; federal funds matching of up to 9 to 1 for a candidate who agrees to take contributions of $150 or less; and, the opportunity for a candidate to raise additional matching funds in the last 60 days of an election to counteract an "advertising blitz."

Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig has recommended and taken the initial steps to implement a more radical approach. That is to fight fire with fire - or put another way to pit big money against big money.

Along with Mark McKinnon, Republican strategist and co-founder of the bi-partisan No Labels group, Lessig established the Mayday PAC to raise money to support congressional candidates who would go to Washington DC committed to passing campaign finance reform. In the 2014 midterm, Mayday spent more than $10 million to test this somewhat innovative and very ironic reform scheme.

The results were not good. Mayday backed six candidates in Senate and House races. Five lost. The sole winner was Representative Walter Jones (R-NC). Mayday's effect on that win is questionable. As Politico commented, Mayday "...was hard pressed to claim credit since Jones' re-election to a safe GOP seat was all but assured without outside help."

Not everyone has been trying to amplify the impact of dollars on the election process. Others such as Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) are pushing for a constitutional amendment to overturn and correct the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. This would be done by constructing the amendment to specify and regulate the nature of campaign spending and contributions.

It seems unlikely that any of these approaches will be successful. Even if one was, it would not address the underlying issue of extremely poor voter participation here in the United States.

On a comparative international ranking of 169 democracies, the United States ranked 120th in voter participation from 1945-2001. Other studies have ranked the United Sates as 28th out of 28 in participation among advanced or mature nations that vote democratically.

A few of these countries like Australia and Belgium make voting mandatory. However, the majority do not.

We are not endorsing a mandatory voting requirement. But, what we do recommend is the reform of the electoral process to promote and ensure maximum feasible participation by all eligible voters and voting age eligible citizens.

As we noted in an earlier blog, this could be accomplished by putting an effective and efficient system into place. At the beginning of this year, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration presented sound recommendations for improving our current system. They included: online voter registration, state of the art techniques to assure efficient management of polling places, and accelerating the conversion to new voting technology.

Those are starting points and along with revoking laws that restrict or reduce voter participation would reduce the constraints on voting. The next step would be to create incentives or reasons to vote.

Somewhat facetiously, one way to accomplish this might be to give everyone who voted a lottery ticket with a select group of winners receiving a total distribution equal to the amount spent on all the elections in their state. This would undoubtedly drive turnout way up but would also probably drive the quality of voter decision-making way down.

So, for a more mundane and pragmatic approach, maybe an answer would be to do a better job of educating all citizens on the importance of voting as a commitment to sustaining the American democratic system and as an expression of one's self interest. Sounds boring and unworkable - right?

There is some evidence to the contrary. Before its national elections this year, the Election Commission of India implemented a national initiative called Systematic Voters Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP). SVEEP did work "on a massive scale to educate voters, especially the vulnerable ones..."

The proof of these efforts was in the Indian voter participation pudding. The turnout in the 2014 was 66.4%. This compares to a previous high of almost 62% in 1998.

By contrast, the turnout of eligible voters in the United States for the 2012 presidential election was 58.6%. In the 2008 presidential election, it was slightly over 62%.

Our American democracy is definitely being diminished by dueling dollars and egregious expenditures in political campaigns. But, it is being diminished just as much by those who do not participate in voting and thus have no skin in the game.

Years ago, Dwight Eisenhower admonished, "Politics ought to be the part time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage."

We would do well to remember Eisenhower's admonition today. It will do us little good to get the dollars out of elections if we can not get the citizens in.

We have far too many citizens in 2014 that don't see involvement in the political process as their job. As a result, they are AWOL.

In a vital and vibrant democracy, citizens understand that voting and civic engagement is a fundamental right and responsibility. We are a long way from that universal understanding in the United States in 2014 - possibly further than ever.

Universal understanding will never be fully achieved. But it is a goal that must be pursued with vigor. Because in that pursuit, it will be demonstrated that in this representative democracy called the United States dollars matter but citizens matter more.

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