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Call for a Democracy-for-All Act on MoneyOut/VotersIn Day

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It's time to stop moneyed conservative interests from trying to buy or steal our democracy. We know the problem--let's get to the solutions.

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JL A (281)
Monday January 14, 2013, 3:53 pm

The Nation
Published on The Nation (

Call for a Democracy-for-All Act on MoneyOut/VotersIn Day
Mark Green and Robert Weissman | January 14, 2013

Voters wait on Election Day in Nevada. The adoption of universal voter registration and other measures would help reduce lines at polling places. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson.)

It’s time to stop moneyed conservative interests from trying to buy or steal our democracy. We know the problem—let’s get to the solutions.

Since the 1880s we’ve seen how money shouts, and since the 1980s we’ve watched regressives seek to restrict the freedom to vote, culminating last year in the explosion of Super PAC spending and voting rights restrictions. This time, the efforts of the Adelsons, Kochs and Roves largely failed (at the federal level). But the economic elites will be back to attempt their hostile takeover of our democracy with even more money and sophistication.

Hence MoneyOut/VotersIn Day in some sixty cities on January 19 [1]. That’s when a large coalition of public interest, labor, voting rights and faith groups are aspiring to a “more perfect union” on the confluence of the third anniversary of Citizens United, the weekend celebration of MLK and the Presidential Inauguration.

Generations of traditional campaign finance groups have worked against a democracy-for-sale. And heroic voting rights groups have long sought to fulfill Dr. King’s plea at the Washington Monument in 1957: “Give us the ballot! Give us the ballot!” But rarely have these two communities worked together to stop the rigging of the political system. Until we ensure that popular majorities become public law, it will be hard to accomplish so much of what is urgent—a more progressive tax code, immigration reform, climate change legislation, a living wage, labor reform and gun violence reduction.

So on January 19, scores of groups and thousands of people around the country will organize around a three-part Democracy-for-All program: a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United; public funding of public elections, in Washington and state capitols; and guaranteed voting rights so potentially 50 million more Americans can vote before or on a National Holiday in November.

First, reverse Citizens United. A momentary five-justice majority in this case tried to assure that a plutocracy of donors supplant a democracy of voters. As for the view that, well, both capital and labor will now be able to spend without limit in elections, the reality is that capital has 3,000 times more wealth than labor, the Koch brothers alone with a net worth more than all unions in America. Senator John McCain is right when he calls the decision the worst in a century. How can “originalists” like Justices Scalia and Thomas ignore the historical reality that the founders intended the First Amendment apply to actual people, not corporations, which never appear in the Constitution? How can Justice Kennedy make believe that “the appearance of influence or access…will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy” if Sheldon Adelson spends, say, $40 million on someone’s behalf and then calls the winning candidate with his ideas on lowered capital gains rates? How can big interests and their apologists hide behind the First Amendment when money is literally property, not speech?

But then, like segregationists who hid behind “property rights” and “states rights,” today’s powerbrokers pretend that they are merely the modern equivalent of silenced minorities. Walmart is not Tom Paine or Fannie Lou Hamer.

It’s one thing for money to buy companies in a system of capitalism based on the private pursuit of profit—but quite another for money to buy congressmen with trillions in shareholder wealth collected for commercial, not political, purposes.

There is an almost comical irony in the law creating corporate charters to raise private capital for business purposes…and then allowing these creations to use that privilege to privatize democracy itself. Surely the Supreme Court can figure out how to condition a privilege, so that corporations can contract and enjoy police protection, but not vote, marry or drown out other voices with an ocean of paid political commercials.

By lopsided margins, the public opposes the current system of purchased politicians and supports overturning Citizens United by amendment or a new Court decision. (Eighty percent favor one and 70 percent would make Super PACs illegal.) While the exact language of an amendment might vary, one version could simply state that money isn’t speech and can, in the electoral context, be regulated like excessive decibels and pollution are by sound/place/manner laws and environmental rules.

There are currently 125 members of Congress, eleven states and 350 cities and towns that have called for a constitutional amendment. Obviously, no state resolution can force a constitutional conclusion, but together they can help create a climate for change, the way hundreds of local referenda for a nuclear freeze in the early 1980s spurred nuclear arms reductions in later Reagan-Gorbachev summits.

True, it’s not feasible today to get a two-thirds majority of each chamber and three-fourths of state legislatures to vote for an amendment—which has happened seventeen times since the Bill of Rights—but a growing movement has taken the idea from pipe dream to mainstream. President Obama told one of the authors in the spring that it was something he wanted to consider in a second term. In his Reddit AMA in October, Obama said, “Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

Next, enact “Democracy Funding.” There are successful versions in New York City, Maine and Arizona. Essentially, either a critical mass of small donations generate a multiple of public matching funding (in New York City, donations from city voters of $175 or under are matched six to one) or candidates can voluntarily opt in to a system where, if they reach a minimum threshold of donors, they receive a fixed amount of public funds to run for office.

Compare the New York City system with matching “democracy funding” and the New York State system without it. Small donations (under $250) account for 55 percent of campaign funds raised in City races but only six percent of State races. Forget 1 percent vs. 99 percent. Given the ethic that you don’t bite the hand that funds you, who is in charge when .5 percent of eligible voters comprise 100 percent of all campaign treasuries in NYS? That’s why a Fair Elections Act creating publicly financed state elections is about to be debated in Albany.

Yes, public funds are involved. But either we have a system of the private funding of public elections—with the hundreds of billions in corporate welfare that result—or we have the public funding for public elections just as we now pay for voting machines and election personnel to administer that Tuesday. New York State has learned that two dollars a voter would pay for a program covering statewide races. Is not our democracy more valuable than one aircraft carrier?

Then there’s Universal Voter Registration. Voter fraud is essentially nonexistent. Meanwhile, some state laws have seven-hour lines for people to exercise their right to vote. As used successfully in many Western European countries and as prominently advocated by the Brennan Center for Legal Justice at NYU, a system of universal registration based on various data bases, like Social Security at birth, could automatically enroll people at 18, creating some 50 million more voters.

Many states—led by Oregon and Washington—have shown that a mix of voting-by-mail, early voting, and same day registration can boost participation by 20 percent points or more. As part of a federal Voter Empowerment Act, it would be also ideal if Congress could create a National Democracy Day on a Saturday in November rather than a working day.

* * *

There are many important steps to save our democracy, from filibuster and gerrymander reforms to the DISCLOSE Act, from the IRS finally investigating tax-deductible groups spending massively in political campaigns, to requiring shareholder resolutions before a company politically spends over a certain amount. But if the three essential elements of a Democracy-for-All Act were enacted, they would fundamentally forever alter who runs, who wins and whom they respond to once in office.

But the only way any or all of this can occur is for candidates to fear and hear from voters more than donors. That’s precisely what happened right after the Watergate scandal, when Congress enacted strong new laws limiting spending and corruption. Now is another opportune moment. After the recent backlash to secret Super PACs and to voter suppression laws—and the election of Obama, who denounced Citizens United to the justices at this 2010 State of the Union and who election night 2012 said of long lines of voters, “We have to fix that”—we demand democracy! If not January 19, then when…and if not us, then who?

Learn more about MoneyOut/VotersIn Day here [1]. And see what the score is on reform at Voting Rights Watch, which last wrote about Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s support for restoring voting rights [2] to nonviolent felons.
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JL A (281)
Monday January 14, 2013, 4:16 pm
More related info from Robert Weissman:

Things are worse than we had reason to expect.

And they are on course to get far worse still.

I’m talking about the political landscape in this country since the U.S. Supreme Court’s horrendous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling — which will be three years old one week from today.

But there’s this: The American people are in an uproar, and they are demanding fundamental reform.

We’ve made more progress to win a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United than was fathomable when we launched the campaign on that fateful day in January 2010, the day the court issued its disastrous decision.

The movement for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United — which has won 11 state resolutions calling for an amendment (with more around the corner), 350 city and town resolutions, support from 100+ members of Congress, and the endorsement of President Obama — is on the cusp of a breakthrough to an even higher plane.

This coming Saturday, January 19, people across the country will rally to get Money Out / Voters In — a marrying of the call for a constitutional amendment and money-and-politics reform with a demand for full voter enfranchisement and an end to voter suppression tactics.

The stakes could not be higher.

If our democracy doesn’t function, if Big Money can tighten even further its grip on our politics, it’s very tough to see winning on issues from preserving Social Security and Medicare to preventing catastrophic climate change, from implementing a fair tax system to defending consumer protections, and much more.

More than a few commentators misread the results of the 2012 election to conclude that concerns over spending by corporations and the super-wealthy were overblown.

In fact, if you look at what happened in 2012 and before that in 2010 — the two elections cycles since Citizens United — and what we can reasonably predict will occur going forward, you can’t help being deeply worried.

1. Big Money dominates elections. The price tag for the 2012 House, Senate and presidential races is estimated at a record $6 billion, by far the most expensive election our nation has ever seen. As noted by The New York Times, “In virtually every respect, the growth of unlimited fundraising and the move of outside groups to the mainstream of politics have magnified the already outsize role of money in political campaigns.”

2. Big Money matters more than ever. No serious person thinks money alone determines elections, but nor should anyone think it doesn’t matter. Two election cycles into the post-Citizens United era, we’re just beginning to see how much it matters.

- In the 2010 midterm elections, 75 congressional seats switched from Democrat to Republican or vice versa. Outside groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s Crossroads operations, spent more on the eventual winner in 4 out of 5 of those races. That’s not coincidence.

- The Democrats — led by a president with unprecedented fundraising capacity — spent almost as much in 2012 as did the GOP and its outside backers (such as Karl Rove, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers). While Democrats prevailed in many Senate races and the presidency, we may never again see a presidential candidate from either party who can match Barack Obama’s base of small donors, so future candidates will be that much more beholden to outside spending in 2016 and beyond.

- In a runaway election for the Democratic Party, outside funding from corporations and the very rich played a key role in keeping the U.S. House of Representatives in Republican control. Example: Republican David Rouzer defeated North Carolina Democratic incumbent Mike McIntyre. As reported by Politico, “Mike McIntyre’s first congressional race in 1996 cost $450,000. Then came the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.” Nearly $9 million was spent on the race with Rouzer, “who, on his own, would lack the resources to compete vigorously across the sprawling district,” clearly benefiting from the outside cash.

- Outside money kept the presidential race artificially close. “If groups like Crossroads were not active, this race could’ve been over a long time ago,” said Karl Rove on election night. Sure Rove was self-justifying — but he was also right.

- Outside spending was vital to the Republican presidential primary. Donations from individual millionaires and billionaires animated the campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, which otherwise would have collapsed earlier. And Mitt Romney’s super PAC, Restore Our Future, gave him the power to ultimately crush his primary opponents with negative ads.

3. The claim than super PACs are independent is a ruse. Public Citizen discovered that nearly 60 percent of super PACs active in the 2012 election cycle were devoted to supporting or defeating a single candidate. Many are founded, funded or managed by friends and political allies — or even family — of the candidate they support.

4. Records are being shattered. Citizens United enabled an array of outside groups to raise and spend money like never before. A Public Citizen report found that outside spending in top Senate races was 12 times greater in 2012 than in 2006.

5. Outside spending is overtaking the political parties. In two dozen close House races, outside groups spent almost as much as the parties.

6. The candidates themselves may not be able to keep up. As reported by Public Citizen, outside spending exceeded candidate spending in four of the 10 most expensive Senate races.

7. Outside spending shifts control from modestly accountable candidates and parties to unaccountable Dark Money entities and super PACs backed by corporations and the hyper-rich.

8. Outside money is mostly Dark Money. Nearly half of all spending by unrestricted outside groups to influence 2012’s top Senate races was spent by groups not required to disclose their donors. Almost none of the corporate money pouring into outside groups was disclosed.

9. Outside spending will continue to soar. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson spent more than $100 million on the 2012 election, double what he spent in 2008. He says he’s ready to “double” his donations. “I’ll spend that much and more. Let’s cut any ambiguity.”

10. Money has a permanent chilling effect on office holders. Candidates backed by corporations and the wealthy are likely to carry the water for those benefactors. Even candidates who win despite running against Big Business know that the same entities will try to defeat them next time. Politicians know that they cannot afford to sidestep, much less actively challenge, corporate interests when it could mean being targeted by those with infinitely deep pockets. So much for “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

11. Outside groups will become increasingly effective. Expect to see the side that lost mimic the tactics of the side that won or develop new ways to spend their money. We may have hit the saturation point with TV ads, but outside groups are studying the Obama campaign’s voter management and mobilization strategy, and looking to emulate it going forward.

12. Campaign funders get to frame the issues. Politicians fearful of the fossil fuel industry barely uttered the words “climate change” this year. And wealthy donors have an outsized say in the issues their candidates highlight.

13. In the ever-escalating money arms race, politicians will be forced to raise even more cash to retain their seats. This means they will have even less time to govern amid all the kowtowing to the mega-rich required to build their campaign war chests. Constant fundraising keeps politicians even from talking to real people. Up until election week, Barack Obama had attended 221 fundraisers but only 101 campaign rallies. And, as The New York Times reported, “for long stretches of the summer and fall, Mr. Romney was so busy with fundraisers that he often did no more than one public event a day.”

14. Donation limits are becoming meaningless. Got money? Form a super PAC and you can spend as much as you want to get your favored candidate elected. There are barely any meaningful rules left in our campaign spending system.

15. Big Money inundates us with negative attack ads. Real debate is displaced by misleading, personal attacks. A Public Citizen report found that more than 85 percent of unregulated independent expenditures made by the 15 biggest outside groups in the 2012 election cycle financed negative messages — no surprise to any TV viewer in a swing state.

16. Beware the convergence of super PACs and lobbying. Trade associations and lobby groups like the National Association of Realtors and the American Bankers Association have set up super PACs. And super PACs are starting issue advertising campaigns. “Super PACs become lobbying force,” reads a recent USA Today headline. “I could see super PACs set up by industry sectors, or even by coalitions interested in a particular issue,” Rich Gold, a D.C. lawyer-lobbyist, told Roll Call. Moreover, the Dark Money groups funneling secret money into elections must lobby and engage in “public education” if they are to preserve their tax status and ability to funnel Dark Money. This means that those throwing around millions of dollars in election campaigns will directly be asking elected officials to support or oppose this or that measure. Saying no will come with obvious consequences.

17. Even the lobbying industry says Dark Money threatens democracy. As the outside groups start engaging in policy fights, and lobby groups start super PACs, here’s the reaction from Howard Marlowe, outgoing president of the American League of Lobbyists, as quoted in USA Today: “We already have a perception that our government is for sale. This is not a good development to have more political money thrown into the policymaking process.”

18. Citizens United reinforces oligarchy. As an industry, Wall Street has more money to throw around than any. Finance moguls topped the donation charts for Mitt Romney and represented almost a third of the top outside individual spenders. Although they largely bet on losers in 2012, they still have more power than they would if they had not spent anything. If you doubt the point, consider the prominent and shameful role of Wall Street executives in calling for cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

19. Outside spending is buying state governments. In contrast to the 2012 presidential election, state efforts by big-spending conservative groups “were strikingly successful,” reports The New York Times. “While Mr. Obama was winning onetime red states like Virginia and swing states like Michigan and Ohio, Republicans made large gains in state offices in many of the same battlegrounds.” Now Republicans have “one-party control in almost half the state capitals in the country.” Hence the incomprehensible specter of Michigan becoming a right-to-work state.

Whatever your reaction to the 2012 election, the trendlines for the functioning of our democracy are all going in the wrong direction.

Except, as I said above, one absolutely vital one: The movement to restore our democracy is zooming skyward.

We need even more people outraged, more people organized, more people writing letters to the editor, more people holding demonstrations, more people lobbying for state and local resolutions to overturn Citizens United, more people urging the Securities and Exchange Commission and other government agencies to take action, more initiatives in more states for public financing of elections, more encouragement for President Obama to press for an amendment and other reform measures, and more people demanding their members of Congress support an amendment.

Together, we’re going to make all those things happen.

Not by magic, but by hard work.

Marianne B (107)
Monday January 14, 2013, 8:45 pm
I was outraged when Sheldon Adelson tried to buy the presidency with his donation. Thank goodness that did not happen. It's insane the lengths the Republicans will go to preserve these rich people and not pay their fair share in taxes. I agree with all points stated by you. Thanks

Theodore Shayne (56)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 6:06 pm
Noted. What's with the Chinese knock offs?

Kathleen R (138)
Wednesday January 16, 2013, 12:51 pm
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