Beneath the turbulent political spectacle that has captured so much of the nation’s attention lies a more important question than who will get the Republican nomination, or even who will win in November: Will we have a democratic election this year? Will the presidential election reflect the will of the people? Will it be seen as doing so—and if not, what happens? The combination of broadscale, coordinated efforts underway to manipulate the election and the previously banned unlimited amounts of unaccountable money from private or corporate interests involved in those efforts threatens the democratic process for picking a president. The assumptions underlying that process—that there is a right to vote, that the system for nominating and electing a president is essentially fair—are at serious risk.
In all of the excitement over the Republicans’ sweep of the 2010 elections—their recapture of the House of Representatives, the decrease in the Democrats’ margin in the Senate, and the emergence of the Tea Party as a national force—most of us missed the significance of their victories in the states. The Republicans took control of both the governorship and the legislature in twelve states; ten states were already under Republican control. The Republican-controlled states undertook quite similar efforts to tilt the outcome of the presidential election in their party’s favor by denying the right to vote to groups that traditionally voted Democratic—minorities, the elderly, and students.
Of the fifteen states that in 2011 considered new voting restrictions, eight approved a requirement that people who want to vote show a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license or passport, the kinds of documents that members of such groups are unlikely to have. Two states had already enacted such a requirement. (Even the Department of Motor Vehicles requires simply that people show some household bill to establish place of residence.) They reversed progress in the struggle to guarantee the right to vote that had gone on since the Civil War. This concerted effort amounts to a subversion of the democratic system of government, taking away the fundamental right to vote.
Until two years ago, there was reason to believe that through laws passed by Congress and upheld by the courts, there were at least some constraints on the part that corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals could play in federal elections through “soft money” donations. Such donations could, under very limited circumstances, be made to a party or a group organized around an issue. The donors were required to operate outside the campaigns themselves, even if the lines between them were somewhat porous. However, in 2010 a couple of major court decisions wiped away the requirement that this soft money had to be spent on “issue ads,” and removed all limits on what corporations, unions, and individuals could spend on behalf of a candidate. This led to the creation of so-called Super PACs—political action committees that collect and spend unlimited corporate or individual contributions to pay for ads that are explicitly for a specified candidate. These donations weren’t required to be disclosed until after the election. This changed everything. The 2012 election has been virtually taken over by Super PACs; the amounts they are spending are far outstripping expenditures by the candidates’ campaigns.