It’s becoming more difficult for people to see how their vote is going to matter in the 2012 election. When states are increasingly passing voter ID laws that mandate voters prove they are citizens or that they are legitimate voters at the polls, while Super PACs are able to field millions of dollars, often from unidentified people, to influence elections, then democracy becomes less of a real thing to many people. A new survey from the Brennan Center for Justice shows majorities of Americans seeing Super PACs as corrupting forces on elections. There’s enough Super PAC distrust in the survey that many said they likely won’t vote. Evidently Bonnie Raitt isn’t the only person who feels, as she said in Rolling Stone, that “we have an auction instead of an election.”
Voters of color certainly feel that way. In the Brennan survey, African-Americans and Latino Americans were more likely than whites to say they feel discouraged from voting due to the outsized influence of Super PACs, and who can blame them? In many states, voters of color will have to go through the often user-unfriendly process of excavating birth and marriage documents, and then hoping there’s a DMV office close by that they can get to between shifts or after work hours, all to get ID cards that they otherwise wouldn’t need. Once done, they better hope their address doesn’t change (hope they’re not evicted, foreclosed upon or otherwise homeless), or that their name doesn’t change (hope they don’t get divorced), or if they are Latino, hope that their name is recorded correctly, or else they may get turned away after a long wait in line because the ID information doesn’t match with the registers.
But before all of that, they have to overcome the idea that their one vote is going to matter as much as the $1 million gift to a Super PAC. They have to also overcome the idea that as a voter they may not have the same access to the elected candidate as the million-dollar donors—many donors who by the way do not have to be identified to the public when voting by bank account, nor do they have to wait in long lines because they’re making payments online.
When only about 20 percent of Americans believe the average voter has the same access and influence on candidates as Super PAC big donors, as reported in the Brennan Center survey, and when over a quarter of respondents say they are less likely to vote because of Super PAC influence, there is evidence that democracy isn’t working for everybody. Voter ID laws, which supposedly clean up fraud in the system, won’t solve that problem, especially when fat-cat donors aren’t subject to the same identification regimens.
“I would think that people who are raising so many questions about possibilities of fraud entering the system are as concerned about millions of dollars poured into the system to influence votes,” said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel for the Brennan Center.
Skaggs pointed out that while rules around donor disclosure to Super PACs are in place to make sure that the public knows who it is that’s making it rain on independent expenditure committees, there is a way around that by donating to 501(c)4 non-profits, which aren’t subject to the same disclosure rules. And many Super PACs have set up nonprofits that act as money launderers, allowing individuals and corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to Super PACs, but washed through the nonprofit cycle so that people don’t know who the sources are. Skaggs says the Supreme Court “got it wrong” in the Citizens United decision when they reasoned that corporate expenditures would be fair and transparent because they have to report donor information to the Federal Election Commission. But the justices didn’t figure that nonprofits could be set up as middlemen to bring in anonymous donations.