2016 is a big year, what with the presidential election and 469 members of the U.S. House and Senate up for grabs. And we’ve been talking a lot about democracy lately, from the effects of big money on our elections to the problem of deliberate attacks on voting rights. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds with all these terms that many of us haven’t heard since high school government class. So here’s a cheat sheet for you to keep it all straight:
Citizens United vs. FEC
The problem of big money in politics was made exponentially worse by one 2010 Supreme Court ruling: Citizens United vs. FEC. In this ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the same free speech rights as people, and since an earlier court ruling said that money equals speech, Citizens United opened the floodgates for unchecked amounts of money to corrupt our democratic process. In the 2012 election cycle, outside spending tripled from the previous cycle— reaching over $1 billion— with 68% of that spending coming from just 216 donors. And when so few people have so much power, we have to question whether this democracy is working for everyone.
While Super PACs are required to disclose where they get their money from (the catch: they can take money from incorporated entities, so individual donors can still fly under the radar), so called 501(c)(4) “political non-profits” do not have to. Allowed to accept unlimited donations, these “dark money” groups have made a huge leap in spending since pre-Citizens United, up from $5.2 million in 2006 to over $174 million by the 2014 midterms. Transparency? Forget about it.
‘Democracy for All’ Amendment
When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United in the Citizens United vs. FEC case in 2010, they didn’t leave much wiggle room for reversing the decision. Now, the only way to reverse that detrimental decision would be with a constitutional amendment. Enter the ‘Democracy for All’ amendment. This amendment would allow the Congress and states to once again set limits on the amount of money that can be spent on elections and would revoke corporations’ personhood rights. Right now, it’s our best bet at getting the influence of big money out of our elections.
The Federal Election Commission is the agency that oversees federal election financing. But, hamstrung by increasingly partisan bickering and standoffs (6 commissioners means a lot of 3-3 tie votes), they remain under-resourced and largely ineffectual at curbing campaign finance violations. FEC chairwoman Ann Ravel even went to far as to say, “People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.” Uh oh.
Gerrymandering is the process of redrawing voting district lines in such a way that one party is given an advantage over another. Voting districts are, in theory, drawn to be representational of the voting population therein. Meddling with them in just the right ways, though, can appear to give one party an advantage by reallocating votes away from areas where they have a super majority to areas where those votes could tip the scales in that party’s favor.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, outside spending is defined as “political expenditures made by groups or individuals independently of, and not coordinated with, candidates' campaigns.” This includes everyone from regular party committees, to the Super PACs and “dark money” groups that are pumping money into their own ads and communications to support particular candidates. Not surprisingly, the amount of outside spending has skyrocketed since Citizens United did away with many of the restrictions on these groups.
Political Action Committees (PACs) have existed for a long time, and their role has always been to collect money from individuals that wanted to support a particular candidate. But before Citizens United, they were tightly regulated. But, like radioactive sludge creating a super villain, Citizens United created Super PACs by allowing them to funnel nearly unlimited money in support of a specific candidate, as long as they weren’t in "direct coordination with the candidate’s campaign”. Welcome to the era of unlimited campaign funding and the donor arms race. Not a very good setup for a democracy “Of the people, by the people.”
Trickle Up Policymaking
In general, people vote for the candidates who support the policies they like the most – the policies that would benefit them personally. So, if everyone votes, everyone’s voices are heard when it comes time to write policies. This is known as trickle up policymaking – the idea that your priorities trickle up to the big-wigs in Washington, DC via the candidates that you vote for. So, when certain groups of voters, say, low-income or African American voters, either can’t or choose not to vote, their opinions don’t trickle up, and aren’t taken into consideration.
Turnout gaps are what political experts call it when large groups of people from certain demographic groups don’t vote, or have very low turnout rates. For example, in the 2012 election, 26 million voters of color couldn’t or didn’t vote, and 47 million voters earning less than $50,000 a year didn’t vote. Those are some big numbers, which means that there’s a racial as well as income-based turnout gap. Why is that a problem? Because when entire groups of people aren’t making it to the polls, their voices aren’t heard when it comes time to decide on policies.
Voter disenfranchisement is the systematic blocking of a person or entire group of people from casting their vote. Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, this took the form of poll taxes, rigged literacy tests and outright violence. Today, those things are illegal, but new methods of disenfranchisement have arisen: voter ID laws that block folks without government-issued ID from voting; ending same-day registration, leaving out anyone who didn’t register ahead of time; shortening early voting periods, excluding many people with difficult work schedules; and the list goes on. Disproportionately, these tactics keep African Americans, Latinos, low-income people, the elderly, the disabled and students from casting their votes.
Voter ID laws
Voter ID laws – laws that say you have to have valid government-issued identification in order to vote – are passed under the auspice of restricting voter fraud. The only thing is, voter fraud rarely happens. Thus, these laws have an unfair impact on voters who are less likely to have ID, such as lower-income Americans, African Americans, the elderly and the disabled. For these groups of people, needing valid ID is another obstacle to getting to the polls and casting their vote.
Voting Rights Act
Before the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed in 1965, black American voters were subjected to a whole slew of unjust and un-American practices that made it almost impossible to cast their votes: everything from literacy tests to poll taxes to outright violence. The passage of the VRA, one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted, ended all that and required that states with a history of discriminating against African American voters have any changes to their voting regulations pre-approved by the Justice Department. This worked great for decades upon decades, with previously suppressed voters coming out in record numbers. In 2013, however, the Supreme Court invalidated the preclearance provision that required Justice Department reviews. Today, some states are taking advantage of that change and enacting retrogressive voting policies that will again lead to the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters, primarily African American and low-income voters. Here’s why we support the full reinstatement of the VRA.