Big Donors and Ballot Bandits Hang Over Election

By Roger Bybee

Billionaires and Ballot Bandits — as BBC reporter Greg Palast entitles his new book (see excerpt on "Seven Ways to Beat Ballot Bandits") — represent two giant swords hanging over democracy in the 2012 election.

As Palast shows, a collection of rightist billionaires are busy flooding the campaign war chests of conservative candidates from Mitt Romney on down, threatening to drown democracy in a torrent of corporate money unleashed by the US Supreme Court’s broadly unpopular 2010 Citizens United decision. (Even before the decision, the dominance of corporate influence in government was suggested by the 15-1 ratio of corporate to labor spending in federal elections in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics figures.)

At the same time, many of these same billionaires, such as David and Charles Koch, are bankrolling a national push by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS to further shrink the pool of potential voters — especially people of color—via voter ID laws and other restrictive measures enacted in numerous states.

The implications of the intertwined gusher of corporate money aimed at determining electoral outcomes and the systematic efforts to narrow the electorate through new laws to limit voting rights is frankly admitted by even Karl Rove himself. “We are beginning to look like we have elections like those in counties where the guys in charge are, you know, colonels in mirrored sunglasses,” Rove stated bluntly, Palast reports.

The massive injection of billionaire money directly reflects the appallingly unequal distribution of wealth and income in the US, according to Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist from Vermont, and the enhanced ability of the increasingly engorged super-wealthy to further their interests through newly-unrestrained campaign contributions.

“Today, the top 1% own 40% of all wealth, while the bottom 60% owns less than 2%,” notes Sanders. “Incredibly, the bottom 40% of all Americans own just 3/10 of 1% of the wealth of the country.

“That is what is going on economically in this country. A handful of billionaires own a significant part of the wealth of America and have enormous control over our economy, “ as Sanders summarizes an unprecedented concentration of wealth and control over the economic lives of workers, consumers, communities, and the nation itself.

Moreover, the Citizens United decision, in removing virtually all controls over corporations’ ability to influence political outcomes, intimidates elected officials in both parties away from proposing measures that impinge on corporate interests, out of fear of triggering a last-minute corporate advertising onslaught against them through their campaign contributions. Thus, concentrated economic power is on the verge of being translated into concentrated political power incompatible with democracy.

“What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires: “You own and control the economy, you own Wall Street, you own the coal companies, you own the oil companies,” argues Sanders. “Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we’re going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government

“Let’s be clear,” says Sanders with his refreshing frankness. “Why should we be surprised that one family [David and Charles Koch, owners of America’s largest privately-held US corporation], worth $50 billion, is prepared to spend $400 million in this election to protect their interests? That’s a small investment for them and a good investment. But it is not only the Koch brothers.”

In a recent report, “America For Sale: A Report on Billionaires Buying the 2012 Election” (available at Sen. Sanders lists by name 26 billionaires whose combined political contributions amounted to $61 million as of July.

At the same time that activist billionaires have intensified their political contributions to candidates pliable to their interests and the rest of America’s richest 1%, they have plowed millions into organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council and True the Vote whose mission is to promote the adoption of new, restrictive voting laws by the states. ALEC and other organizations have sought to exaggerate the infinitesimal extent of voter-impersonation fraud in the name of “maintaining the integrity of voting.

But the Brennan Institute for Justice at NYU counters, ”Claims of voter fraud are frequently used to justify policies that do not solve the alleged wrongs, but that could well disenfranchise legitimate voters. Overly restrictive identification requirements for voters at the polls — which address a sort of voter fraud more rare than death by lightning — is only the most prominent example.”

But the utter absence of evidence of actual cases of voter-impersonation fraud has not mattered to Republican state legislators, who in some cases have openly expressed their true motives: establish permanent Republican majorities in their states and turning Barack Obama out of office

The result of this ruthlessly partisan and shamelessly undemocratic mentality could potentially exert an enormous impact: “Sixteen states have enacted voter suppression laws that will affect the election of 214 electors, 79% of the Electoral College,” warns Robert F. Kennedy in his preface to the Palast book.

Such legislative victories have led Rove to crow, “In Florida and Iowa, Democratic registrations are down from their 2010 levels while Republican numbers are up. For example, nearly 29,000 Democrats have disappeared from Iowa registration rolls since January 2011 … In Arizona, Democrats are down 58,000 … and there are now 176,000 fewer Democrats registered in Pennsylvania than in November 2010.”

In the face of such successes in blocking the vote for American citizens, Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania’s Republican House Majority Leader, to boastfully blurt out that the new voter ID law was “going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” On Oct. 2, the Pennsylvania voter ID law heralded by Turzai was struck down in state court. But it remains to be seen how much the strategic purging of voter rolls will affect voting in that crucial state, among the others noted by Karl Rove.

As it was, the 2008 elections – celebrated as a high point in American democracy because of the relatively high voter turnout and the involvement of millions of news voters — had actually witnessed the elimination of 5.9 million votes and voters, Palast ruefully documents.

Across the nation in 2008, secretaries of state and other election officials adopted highly questionable practices like the rejection of voter registration applications, the wrongful purging of registered voters, the spurning of would-be voters are lacking what poll workers regarded as suitable ID, and the discarding of provisional, absentee, and “spoiled” ballots, according to the US Election Commission’s cautious calculations.

Palast refers to 2008’s disenfranchised voters — heavily drawn from the ranks of African-Americans, Latinos, American Indians, the impoverished, students, and other constituencies likely to vote for Democratic candidates and move the American political discourse at least minimally to the Left—as “the Missing Six Million.”

For 2012, the band of billionaires is aiming at adding millions more to the ranks of disenfranchised voters. They have well-funded organizations and the collaboration of Republican governors and secretaries of state to execute the wide variety of voter-suppression strategies detailed by Palast. (See “7 Ways to Beat the Ballot Bandits” by Greg Palast)

Simultaneously, this small band of billionaires is trying to dominate public discourse with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of TV and radio ads. These ads, often with little regard for the truth (e.g., in one, Paul Ryan keeps repeating the thoroughly-refuted lie that candidate Barack Obama was somehow responsible for a GM plant closing that was completed before he became president) denounce Democratic candidates and promote hard-line Republicans with an agenda of expanded tax cuts for the rich and corporations (including the removal of taxes on the overseas operations of US-based firms) and deregulation of environmental and worker-safety laws despite the immense dangers underscored by the BP explosion in 2009.

Energized by a new round of tax breaks and liberated from supposedly onerous regulation, the “Job Creators” deified by the Republicans are supposed to unleash a vast explosion of job creation. Given the dubious record of major corporations (net US job increase of under 1% 1999-2009, and vaporizing 2.9 million jobs at home while creating 2.4 million jobs offshore during the 2000-10 period, according to the 4/19/11 Wall Street Journal), Americans have little reason to find these 2012 election promises from Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and their billionaire allies credible.

However, the billionaires are very clearly delivering on their plans to swamp democracy with a tidal wave of cash and to downsize the number of voters who will be deciding who will be running America. Progressives will need to be very vigilant and active to prevent a corporate takeover that threatens to permanently distort America’s democratic promise.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer. He edited The Racine Labor weekly for 14 years. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2012

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