Tuesday, July 31, 2012

So You Want to “Influence” an Election

So you want to “influence” the results of an election so that your candidate of choice is elected. First, let’s ask a rhetorical question that often goes unasked. Why? Why do you want your candidate of choice to be elected? I would presume that in almost all cases, the reason that someone wants a particular candidate to win is because of that candidate’s proposed policies. The person wanting the candidate to succeed most likely believes that candidate will do something (or, perhaps, do nothing, as the case may be) that the person believes will be good for … well, something. Maybe good for the person or good for the person’s business or good for the country or the economy or some other nebulous beneficiary.

OK. Fair enough. But I think that it’s important when we think about why someone wants to influence an election to be sure we understand the influencer’s motivation. If someone is going to work very hard, commit a crime, or expend enormous amounts of money, then there must be a really compelling reason to do so.

Now, with that in mind, let’s say that you really do want to influence an election. You think that if candidate X is elected you or something important to you will be better. So how might you influence the election? Obviously, you could work for a campaign, but that’s not the type of influence I’m talking about.

Well, if we listen to the right, one of the most dastardly ways to influence an election is voter fraud. Before getting too deep into the weeds of voter fraud itself, there is one important distinction to draw: Voter fraud that would influence an election is not the same as vote fraud in registering to vote. The act of registering, fraudulently or otherwise, has absolutely no impact on the results of the election. It doesn’t add a vote to any candidate’s column. If I go to the appropriate county office and somehow manage to register to vote under a fictitious name, not only have I committed a felony, but it’s a felony that, so far at least, has done me no good whatsoever. For my felonious behavior to matter, I still have to cast a ballot.

And therein lies the problem with the specter of vote fraud.

Unless we’re talking about something like a local township election, the number of votes necessary to win almost any election is enormous. Sure there are always a handful of elections that turn out to be very close, but those are, by far, the exception rather than the rule. So consider the real question: Just how many people are going to have to be willing to commit a felony in order to get their particular candidate elected? Or, perhaps, how many people will be willing to commit that felony frequently enough on election day for their repeated felonious conduct to have an impact? Remember that this isn’t like robbing a bank where the perceived financial benefit will be near instantaneous. To fraudulently cast a ballot means that you believe that, in the long term, the politician elected will be able to do some good for you. And that is only if the politician wins. If he loses? Well, you’ve committed the felony for no good whatsoever (almost like robbing a bank but not knowing ahead of time if the bank will have any money and, if they do, relying on them sending you a check several years down the road).

It seems to me that the difficulty in actually committing vote fraud, compounded with the very limited possibility for personal gain, explains why proponents of voter ID laws have had so little success in pointing to any real examples of in person vote fraud. It just doesn’t happen. But it makes a good bogeyman. (Note that just law week, officials in Pennsylvania stipulated to a court that there is is no known example of in person vote fraud in Pennsylvania; Indiana’s Secretary of State made the same stipulation to the Federal Court hearing the case about Indiana’s voter ID law several years ago. Note further that a Republican candidate in Arizona has recently been caught [or at least alleged] to have been voting via absentee ballot on behalf of his deceased wife for five years, a crime that voter ID laws don’t protect against.)

So let’s shift to the other type of influence: Money. While a fraudulent vote doesn’t count for very much, the influx of enormous sums of money into the political process certainly does. And note that the only people who can, on their own, make an enormous influence via money are those with lots of money to spend. People living paycheck-to-paycheck can’t afford more than a handful of dollars (if that) to help politicians. The idea of paying tens of thousands or even millions to attend black tie dinners or to support a Super PAC is simply out of reach and alien to the experience and means of all but a tiny portion of the population. Hey, I’m a big supporter of Israel, but it’s not within my means to just jet off to Israel for a weekend in order to have breakfast with a candidate for President of the US, let alone pay $60,000 for the ticket to that breakfast; I suspect that there aren’t too many Americans who can pony up that kind of cash … for that kind of access.

But do we really think that those with the money to burn would spend that money if they didn’t think that there would be some kind of return on their “investment”? I’m going to presume that at least a decent percentage of those folks didn’t get rich by accident which leads me to also presume that they are carefully considering the net benefit of making an enormous campaign contribution. Take, for example, a billionaire. Might it be worth spending a few million or even tens of millions if your expected “return” on that investment was a tax cut that might be worth even more? Of course.

Consider further the degree of harm that the unfettered application of money to a campaign can cause. First, those who can’t contribute hundreds of thousands may feel alienated from the system and may decide that their $25 contribution is of no value or that their voice won’t matter. And thus they essentially opt out of participation. Of course, that may be the goal of one side of the political spectrum. Then we have to consider the fact that the money is largely fungible and so, despite claims to the contrary, it is highly probably that money from foreign sources (perhaps even foreign governments) is, indeed, making its way into our political debate. And as to the nature of that political debate, there are now essentially no rules as to what can and can’t be said. Thus, those with money to burn can more or less get away with disseminating all sorts of misinformation if not outright lies. Furthermore, much of the money now flowing into the system and the messages paid for by that money are largely anonymous. And of course that money helps to buy candidates who may support laws that will keep that anonymity in place or who will support judges who will continue to allow the unfettered influence of money on our electoral process.

Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that, unlike vote fraud, it is the money that may help determine who the candidates are in the first place. If you can’t raise money, you’re not going to even get on many ballots or generate any sort of name recognition.

Vote fraud may be an easy scapegoat, but it’s nothing more than a bogeyman. The real danger to our electoral system is money.

And consider this: Why is it that politicians are willing to impose ID requirements upon people who want to vote but not put requirements to simply disclose identity upon those who give money? If I hand a politician a pile of cash and ask him to vote for bill X, then I’ve committed bribery; but if I hand him a pile of cash and say, “Gee, I hope you get elected so that you can vote for bill X,” then I’ve just exercised my First Amendment rights. And I’ve done it without having to show my ID.

Or query this: If you’re an individual, especially one who lives paycheck-to-paycheck or is of relatively modest means, who lobbies on your behalf? Who pays to take legislators to expensive lunches, golf outings, or trips to Aruba on your behalf? Isn’t it an odd system that we’ve designed where corporations have lobbyists but people (well, other than a very limited subset) don’t? Sorry, but that seems a bit backwards to me.

One final point on all of this: Besides spending money to buy adds or simply support candidates, there is another use for the money by those who want to influence elections: They can “buy” new laws (through organizations like ALEC) to help suppress the votes of those with whom they might disagree. For example, they might choose to spend money to support candidates who will pass laws that require those who are most likely to vote for the “other guy” to … oh, I don’t know … maybe, get photo IDs?

There is the real tragedy in all of this. Those with money to spend and who desire to have elections (and the country go their way) have created the bogeyman of vote fraud and then used their money to help pass new laws to suppress the votes of those who support their political opponents. In other words, money is being used to buy politicians, it is being used to buy laws, it is being used to suppress voting, it is being used to tell lies, spread fear, and generate hate, and it is being used to buy a government and country. We are a democratic republic that is in danger of becoming a faux-democratic oligarchy.

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