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.
As a result, we have a situation like the Crossroads Super PAC, which has a PO-box nonprofit called Crossroads GPS. The website offers no information on the activities on this “grassroots advocacy organization” because there are none to speak of, unless you count their political ads. The only page on their website that matters is the “Please Donate” page, where Crossroads is happy to inform us that “There are no limits on the amounts that may be contributed to Crossroads GPS by an individual, corporation, union or trade association.” And while donations over $5000 require reporting to the IRS, Crossroads reminds the donor that “the IRS does not make these donor disclosures available to the general public.”
Technically, all nonprofits are subject to the nondisclosure provision. But there are nonprofits that have been doing actual social welfare work for decades that people can donate to so that that work can be continued; and then there are nonprofits created purely to funnel Super PAC money. Why would wealthy donors give to Super PAC–sponsored nonprofits as opposed to directly to Super PACs? Because they don’t want to be identified. It’s the same reason companies participate and pay thousands in dues to nonprofits like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—as Brendan Greeley wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek, they value the secrecy. They want their money to influence policy and candidates, in favor of conservative interests, but they can do without the transparency and accountability.
It’s unclear, though, that Super PACs themselves are complying with disclosure rules. The Washington Post reported this week about a mysterious $400,000 donation to the Mitt Romney–supporting Super PAC Restore Our Future. At first, the Super PAC refused to disclose the names of the donors, who made contributions in their company’s name. Only after news organizations prodded were the actual donors’ names finally revealed. A Restore Our Future spokesperson said the reason the names weren’t disclosed before was because of “a clerical error.”
Clerical errors happen all the time when voters are being registered and their votes are counted. But when that happens, it’s not called a “clerical error.” It’s called “voter fraud.” And it’s called voter fraud by the same people who are champions for Super PAC unlimited spending—wealthy conservatives. It doesn’t matter how damaging this is for democracy, or that the balance of political power is tipped in favor of the 1 percent, who already had an unbalanced advantage to begin with.
I agree with Skaggs that the non-profit loophole needs to be closed. Considering that legitimate nonprofits have a right to still have undisclosed donations, for legitimate nonprofit social welfare work, he suggests that nonprofits have separate accounts, especially for those who are giving upwards of tens of thousands of dollars for campaign purposes, and that the names of those donors be disclosed to the public. The rules should be adjusted so that those nonprofits that haven’t been engaged in campaign spending manipulation aren’t penalized. But “as to whether there should be full disclosure on who is spending on ads clearly aimed at voting for or against a candidate, we absolutely should have full disclosure,” said Skaggs.
A coalition of voting rights groups signed onto a letter asking Congress to pass The DISCLOSE Act. The letter states, “It is a cardinal rule of campaign finance laws that citizens are entitled to know the donors financing campaign expenditures to influence their votes, and the amounts they gave.” Maybe the Supreme Court didn’t see these problems coming when it made its Citizens United decision, but now the floodgates are open, and if adjustments are not made, democracy will become, as Raitt noted, a series of auctions. Most importantly, though, if conservatives want people to place onerous restrictions on how voters identify themselves at the polls, then they should identify who they are when making fat campaign donations.