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 process?

No, they were providing "payments" for services yet to be rendered.

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