Voting Rights in Peril
by Joel Bleifuss
In These Times magazine, August 2001
The struggle to expand democratic rights in the United States
has been hard fought. Those who hold the reins of power have never
willingly given them up. Thanks however to a succession of popular
movements- against slavery, for workers rights, for women's suffrage
and against Jim Crow-America has moved beyond the day when white,
male property owners ruled absolutely.
Every citizen now can exercise their democratic right and
vote for the candidate of their choice. But is that enough? In
the last decade or so, the political playing field drastically
has changed. Today, what counts most is not the right to vote,
but the ability to influence electoral outcomes by giving "contributions"
to candidates and political parties. In effect, the wealthy have
found in the current campaign finance system a way to worm around
the impediment of democracy.
With each successive national election, the amount of money
funneled into campaigns sets a new record. The Republican National
Committee recently announced that in the first half of 2001 it
raised $48.6 million, 60 percent more than it raised in the same
period in 1999, the last non-election year. The Democratic National
Committee also set a record, taking in less than half that of
the Republicans at $23.5 million.
In effect, the current system allows the rich to disenfranchise
the vast majority who are not rich. That injustice is at the crux
of the campaign finance reform issue. Too often, however, this
fundamental point is obscured in a debate that focuses on soft
money or issue ads or spending limits.
How do we develop an electoral system where individuals are
not allowed to use private wealth to exponentially increase their
influence over who gets elected? The best way to go is a voluntary
system of full public funding for candidates who agree to abide
by spending limits and take no private financing. Public funding
measures, promoted nationally by Public Campaign, are currently
being implemented in Maine, Massachusetts, Arizona and Vermont.
Groups in another 37 states are pushing such legislation forward.
In the short term, the McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan ban on
soft money (the unregulated contributions to parties and fundraising
committees) is a start. In the last election cycle, almost $500
million in soft money was poured into campaigns. Unfortunately,
unless the bill's House supporters can come up with enough votes
to override House Speaker Dennis Hastert and bring the measure
to the floor, the soft money ban is dead.
Public pressure could turn the tide, but voters are cynical,
doubting whether politicians are willing to reform a system that
operates to their benefit. This cynicism is compounded by a confusion
generated by corporate media that has no desire to change a system
from which it too benefits. Applauding the demise of the soft
money ban, a Chicago Tribune editorial told readers that "the
bill is a reminder that those who want to get money out of politics
are prepared to stifle a lot of free speech in the process."
(Not to mention, to put a dent in the ad revenues of the Tribune's
television holdings. ) Defenders of the current campaign finance
system, like the Tribune executives, contend that the money people
provide to finance electoral campaigns is a form of speech protected
by the First Amendment-a facile argument which ignores the fact
that, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, "money
is property, not speech."
Those media institutions that support an overhaul of the system,
like the New York Times, could help energize public opinion by
being more proactive. One place to start would be to reform the
current campaign finance lexicon. Are the funds given by private
interests to candidates really "contributions" Isn't
"payments" the more appropriate term? Did the giant
oil and gas corporations pump $26 million (78 percent of their
political giving) into Republican campaigns in the 2000 election
because they wanted to "contribute" to the democratic
No, they were providing "payments" for services
yet to be rendered.