Can We Afford To Talk About Campaign Finance Reform Without Talking About Voting Rights?

voting rights campaign finance

On a sunny Saturday earlier this year, I stood across the street from Town Hall Seattle on an oil-stained driveway in front of a condo building I’ll never be able to afford as a man in Transitions® Lenses shouted at me about how Bernie Sanders was going to get money out of politics.

“He’s going to overturn Citizens United!” the man, who was caucusing for Sanders, yelled at our precinct. “He’s going to make sure that corporations can’t buy elections anymore!”

“And then what?” I asked.

“And then the billionaires can’t buy elections anymore!” the man stated triumphantly to applause.

That wasn’t exactly what I was asking.

This campaign promise has been a keystone for Sanders (Hillary Clinton’s campaign has stumbled on this talking point but has been refining it as the race trundles on) and it clearly resonated deeply with this man. On his campaign site, Sanders outlines his hope for the nation:

Our vision for American democracy should be a nation in which all people, regardless of their income, can participate in the political process, can run for office without begging for contributions from the wealthy and the powerful.

Which is, of course, an extremely great goal—but, in the absence of a plan to address another huge, looming issue that’s aggressively threatening democracy, it feels a little hollow. What I wanted to ask the man at my caucus, and what I’m still wondering about, is this: If you spend all of your energy rallying to get money out of politics, but at no point work to get more people involved in politics, what is the end result?

Or, put more simply: Can we afford to talk about campaign finance reform without talking about voting rights?

Interestingly, in August of 2015, Bernie Sanders has addressed this question directly:

We are facing a two-pronged attack on our democracy — unlimited money poured into the political process, paired with the systematic suppression of the vote.

These are two sides of the same coin.

This is so true! This is a great platform! This is a message that is extremely important! However, as the campaign has heated up, this side of the coin appears to have fallen away; on his main Issues page now, voting rights and attacks on voter suppression efforts are nowhere to be seen.

The idea of getting all people, regardless of their income, involved in politics is a paramount goal for true democracy—however, as long as we’re barring huge numbers of voters from registering, casting ballots, or running for office, it kind of doesn’t matter how much money is or isn’t being poured into campaigns because there will be neither the voters nor the candidates necessary to support or mount those campaigns. 

There are plenty of examples of times when millionaires and billionaires have tried to buy elections, only to find that it can’t always be done because voters are autonomous human beings with needs and desires and wishes.

Allow us to leap into our time machines to the halcyon days of 2015, long before anyone thought that a man with tiny hands and big dreams of bigotry as policy would ever be leading the pack. Here’s a bit from a piece in the Nation in May of last year:

A few weeks after Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced his candidacy, his Super PAC took in $31 million, thanks to the support of Long Island hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has won a $10 million pledge to his Super PAC from the billionaire Miami auto dealer Norman Braman. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has been asking donors to give $1 million a pop to his Super PAC, which expects to bring in $100 million by end of May, the most ever for an unannounced candidate this early in the process.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we now have a new piece of information, which is that Ted Cruz is trailing in delegates and Marco Rubio and Jeb! Bush have both already bowed out. Which goes to show that yes, campaign finance is serious business—but it’s also actually not enough to buy elections when the electorate isn’t interested in what you’re selling.

Jeb! serves as an easy example of this; in February, the Huffington Post calculated that his campaign spent about $2,800 per vote in Iowa just to come in sixth. From the piece:

That’s about 18 times as much money as first-place winner Ted Cruz spent for each vote he received. It’s also 34 times as much as silver medalist Donald Trump spent, and 10 times the amount spent by third-place winner Marco Rubio.

Yes, he outspent the eventual frontrunner for the GOP nomination (who’s basically funding his own campaign and making oodles of money doing it) by a factor of more than 30—just to lose spectacularly.

No amount of money seems to be able to slow the Trump Train; GOP superPACs are funneling tens of millions of dollars into anti-Trump ads and campaigns while his image improves and Cruz’s continues to nosedive.

The message of these examples is clear: Some campaigns are simply so power (or so wretched) that no amount of money can net the desired results.

This isn’t to say that campaign finance reform isn’t absolutely necessary—it is. Congressional leaders are required to do so much fundraising just to stay competitive that they are able to do very little actual lawmaking.

Candidates raise literal billions of dollars, most of which is spent funneling money into your local TV news station; according to Harper’s, “a week before this year’s New Hampshire primary, the contending campaigns had already spent $100 million there on TV ads.” Fundraisers, phone calls, door knocking, and other methods of squeezing money out of people are so time-consuming that legislators may not have time to show up and vote on bills. Which is clearly a problem.

There’s also the very apparent issue of dark money and shady campaign contribution practices; even with stronger campaign finance laws on the books, it would be silly to assume that organizations like ALEC would suddenly become lawful and compliant. Instead, what’s more likely is that the end result of many campaign finance reform policies will be that extremely wealthy contributors will just get craftier in how they work around them.

Which means that by focusing completely on “getting money out of politics”—and by dropping that nuanced but extremely salient connection between voting rights and campaign finance—we’re missing that entire other side to this conversation. We are failing to ask what that money even buys, and whose vote exists to be bought. Even in the event of total campaign finance reform, voter suppression—whether in the form of policies which make voting difficult or impossible, or through gerrymandering that all but ensures legislative district strongholds—will continue to plague the Democratic party and the left’s ability to get anything done or anyone elected.

There is a sort of chicken/egg issue at play, of course. A campaign finance system which benefits moneyed interests and helps them plant lawmakers who bend to their wishes and write policies which benefit them directly makes it difficult to pass voting rights reform—while voting rights reform can help take the wind out of the sails of even the most well-funded campaign.

That said, while it’s extremely difficult to expand voting rights, it’s certainly not impossible; between 1996 and 2008, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 28 states passed new laws on felon voting rights. All things told, the majority of states now re-enfranchise felons once their time is served (with a lot of other restrictions, including financial hurdles that are downright undemocratic)—and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe just recently announced his decision to restore the voting rights of over 200,000 felons (though Republicans announced today that they’d be filing a lawsuit to attempt to block him).

Meanwhile, new voting restrictions are being passed every year under the guise of “fending off voter fraud.” This year, 17 states will require voters to present ID just to vote, which disproportionately impacts turnout among African American folks and younger people. And despite boasting a Democratic Governor and House of Representatives, Washington State’s proposed Voting Rights Act—which would have allowed cities and counties to re-district based in a more egalitarian way, essentially ensuring that they could actually elect a representative body of officials—died on the floor in the 2016 session.

Why does this all matter? For Democrats, doubling down on the expansion of voting rights means literally increasing the number of people who can turn out and vote for their candidates and issues, regardless of how much money the opposition spends.

A 2003 study found that “survey data suggest that Democratic candidates would have received about seven out of every ten votes cast by this disenfranchised population in 14 of the last 15 Senate election years.” We’ve also seen the way that fights to make voting more inclusive have netted direct results; a years-long battle in Yakima, Washington, last year produced the city’s first Latina City Councilmembers in the city’s history.

Voter suppression can also shield lawmakers from unpopular decisions, ensuring that even largely-reviled policies aren’t enough to unseat them. In North Carolina, where HB2 (the trans bathroom bill that also preempts minimum wage increases by cities) is drawing international backlash, Congressional leaders may be able to weather the storm, according to a professor at North Carolina State University:

About 90 percent of the legislators that voted for the bill either face no challengers in their elections this fall or won their last election by more than 10 percentage points. In North Carolina, both parties have embraced gerrymandering — the drawing of election districts for partisan advantage — to such a degree that most incumbents face no challenge. For many, re-filing is effectively the same as being re-elected.

Which again, makes an important point: Regardless of spending on any side of a campaign, if the voters can’t show up to vote and have their votes be counted, it really doesn’t matter who’s funding what. And on the state level, that’s an extremely pressing issue.

Yes, I used two John Oliver clips because they are both relevant. 

Some of the worst laws we’ve seen come out of states—Indiana’s religious freedom act that legalizes discrimination against LGBTQ folks, the various TRAP laws and others which restrict abortion access or straight-up make abortions illegal—are the result not of big money being heaped upon these candidates, but rather, districts which make even running in one of these races a fool’s errand. From a 2014 piece in Mother Jones about Alabama (a state which is currently fighting against minimum wage increases):

One district in Montgomery—nearly 72 percent black and already represented by an African American Democratic senator—needed an additional 16,000 residents to make up for population loss since 2000. GOP map makers reconfigured the district to add 15,785 new residents. Only 36 of those new residents were white. While working hard to add every possible black voter in the vicinity to the district, legislators moved white people out of the district and creatively drew the map to exclude a majority-white area of Montgomery. The impact of the segregated redistricting on this month’s election was stark: The number of white Democrats in the state Senate fell from four to one.

On the other side of the districting issue is California who just recently managed to get a minimum wage increase through all of their legislature and out of the Governor’s office in no small part because of the anti-gerrymandering work by Democrats several years ago.

Because while money in politics certainly matters, in the absence of policies which ensure that voters can actually turn out and vote for people who look like them and care about the same issues as them and push the legislation that benefits them, campaign finance reform is extremely limited in its capabilities.

It would be great to “get big money out of politics” and make it so that “billionaires can’t buy elections,” but like basically everything else in politics, it’s simply not that simple. If we’re truly serious about shaking apart a broken system, we have to look at every side of every issue—and the other side of the campaign finance issue is voting rights.

Hanna Brooks Olsen

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