It’s the old chicken-and-egg problem. Corruption in politics depresses voter turnout, which leads to more corruption in politics.
So which came first?
Political scientists debate this one endlessly. One thing is clear however: what compounded the problem over the past five years – as the corrupting influence of money in politics reached dizzying heights – was Citizens United. On a 5-4 vote in January 2010, the Supreme Court undid almost a century of campaign finance law and declared that corporations (and trade associations, unions, and others) have a free speech right to unleash unlimited amounts of money into the political sphere.
That’s one big chicken.
With this jurisprudence in place, corporations and other special interests – from mom-and-pop shops to Wal-Mart (and you can guess which of those has the most cash) – have been flooding cyberspace, television screens, and print media to influence campaigns, often using front groups to hide the source of their spending. Indeed, shortly after the decision in 2010, super PACs and a variety of non-profit “social welfare” organizations sprung up to collect big checks and use the proceeds to promote or condemn candidates.
End result? Fat-cat companies get fat cats elected to protect their fat-cat interests. And everyone else, lacking the money to engage in this sort of roulette – loses out. Oh yes, every now and then big money loses an election; but in last November’s midterms 94% - 94%! – of the House seats up for grabs were won by the candidate who spent the most on his campaign; 82% of the biggest spenders, moreover, won the Senate’s seats.
The high court’s hideously inaccurate claim that money equals speech has created an unfortunate reality: money is politics, and politics is money. There is no longer a fine line. Under this new landscape, public opinion takes a back seat to donor opinion, and. the American electorate has become further discouraged by a government that it believes doesn’t address its interests. While 70 percent of us demand economic justice when it comes to pay, the federal minimum wage is frozen; 90 percent of Americans think we need tighter gun regulations but a bill to deliver then can’t get past a Senate filibuster.
Watching all this, voters wonder: What’s the point of voting when whoever wins is going to focus on the needs of his big donors rather than on me? It’s hard to blame them.
But there is something we can do – now. Even before the Congress undoes the damage wrought by Citizens United and restores responsible campaign finance laws. We can shrug off the cynicism and show up at the polls to vote for candidates
committed to advancing the public interest: equal pay for equal work; safer neighborhoods; a real voice in the public square; protection of fundamental voting rights. The more we show up – in sufficient numbers - for these politicians, the more often they’ll be in the running. At the end of the day, elections are still a numbers game, and those who are eligible to get involved, must get involved. Communities must rally together to ensure their families, neighbors, and friends are getting registered now so that come Election Day – at the local, state, and federal level – they’ll be ready to vote
To ensure accessibility to the polls for every eligible voter, we must also direct our voices at those already in power, whether in Washington or the statehouse. We must make clear that we expect them to tear down obstacles to the franchise and welcome voter-friendly reforms like same day registration, early voting, voter registration modernization and other steps to energize and engage the electorate. There’s no overnight solution, but there’ll be no solution at all unless we get moving.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Voting and Elections