The Power of Your Vote Should Not Reflect the Size of Your Wallet

In September 2004, I attended a reunion of my class at Harvard Business School, four years after the Supreme Court decision putting George W. Bush in office and immediately before the next Presidential election. We invited Elaine Kamarck, then at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, to discuss elections in a country in which the electorate was so evenly divided. She explained how the too-close-to-call campaigns spurred the funding arms race to new heights.

During the Q&A, a member of the audience offered the thought that many voters had little grasp of or interest in the issues debated in the campaign, and asked why everyone had the right to vote.  Shocked silence.  “How,” she asked, “would you propose to decide who should have a vote?”  He responded with one word: “Money.”

From his lips to John Roberts’s ears, apparently.  This week’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision, removing a limit on the amount individuals could contribute to political campaigns, came down to this, in a New York Times recap:

Leveling the playing field is not an acceptable interest for the government, Chief Justice Roberts said. Nor is “the possibility than an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to elected officials or political parties,’” he added, quoting Citizens United.

Justice Breyer, writing for the four-Justice minority, disagreed. “Where enough money calls the tune,” he wrote, “the general public will not be heard.”

And even as cases like Citizens United and McCutcheon make it easier for the wealthy to influence the government, it’s getting harder for people with less money to vote—for example, Ohio and Wisconsin have recently reduced weekend voting hours “favored by low-income voters and blacks, who sometimes caravan from churches to polls on the Sunday before election.” Voter ID laws have been passed in 34 states; these laws are more likely to make it difficult for the poor to vote. A spate of other restrictive laws were passed in the months immediately following another Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, in which a major section of the Voting Rights Act were overturned.

A lot of attention has recently been paid to the data on the concentration of income.  It’s harder to measure influence inequality than income inequality—the power of the “1%” is not as easy to quantify as their dominant financial assets. But the same dynamics of concentration are at work—and they reinforce one another. Consequently issues of public good are not decided in favor of the public, as Breyer suggests. (For example, who would net neutrality benefit?  Only the public—now facing a diminished power to make their votes count.)

As the case of Egypt—as well as Ukraine and Russia—have recently demonstrated, elections alone are no guarantee that democracy will flourish. Lawrence Lessig, in his book Republic, Lost, describes the change in the attitudes of Congress have shifted in the past thirty years. He cites John Stennis in 1982, balking at appearing at a fund-raiser at which defense contractors would be present (Stennis was then Chairman of the Armed Services Committee.) Stennis asked, “Would that be proper? I hold life and death over those companies. I don’t think it would be proper for me to take money from them. “ He goes on to quote then-Senator, now Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: “There’s no shame anymore. We’ve blown past the ethical standards, we now play on the edge of the legal standards.”  The McCutcheon decision redraws that edge.

The United States is hardly the only democracy to suffer from corrupt interactions of money and power.  Several years ago, I was flying from Mumbai to Boston shortly after the Indian elections in which the BJP Party was voted out of power for the first time in decades.  The Times of India reported that the new administration would have to adjust the responsibilities of the Ministries so that its coalition partners could hold offices with the opportunities for patronage and graft commensurate with their contributions to the victory (reportedly the telecoms responsibility was particularly rich in this regard.) This was written about—including the word “graft”—as how politics was to be conducted in the ordinary course of business, not as any sort of inappropriate behavior.

Landing briefly at Heathrow, I picked up the Times of London, and read about Members of Parliament writing off their mothers’ country cottages as part of their expenses, charged to the taxpayer.  This, however, did excite a high degree of outrage, if little surprise.  Finally, arriving home to the Times of New York, I read that executives of energy companies had been invited to Vice President Cheney’s office to discuss their views on energy policy.  Each of these democracies seems to have it’s own way of dealing with issues of corruption—but the McCutcheon case is one more step towards legalizing it.

Back at my reunion, Professor Kamarck paused a beat, and then went on with the Q&A.  No one rose to point out the danger represented by thinking of electoral power for sale. I assumed that signaled that others in the room saw what she saw—a suggestion so outside the bounds of democratic practice that it wasn’t worth addressing. Now I’m not so sure they weren’t just nodding in silent agreement.  But at least, ten years later, in response to McCutcheon, campaign reform groups held rallies in 150 towns in 41 states and in front of the Supreme Court, according to Money Out/Voters In. And Lessig is walking 185 miles across New Hampshire to build a coalition to fight the influence of money in politics.

They are doing the Founders’ work. When Ben Franklin’s was asked, at the end of the 1787 Constitutional convention,   “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

source: The Power of Your Vote Should Not Reflect the Size of Your Wallet April 10, 2014 at 01:00PM

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