“Super PACs weren’t created by Congress, or the U.S. Supreme Court—they were created by a lower court decision, based on faulty assumptions, that has never been reviewed or revisited,” said Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech For People. Photo: Massachusetts Cop Block/flickr
In what could be a pivotal ruling, a district court decision on Thursday has set the stage for a review of the case that spawned the recent era of lavish and secretive spending by big-money super PACs in local and national campaigns.
In response, proponents of campaign finance reform expressed confidence that they are one step closer to getting a major source of corporate dark money out of U.S. elections. Continue reading →
“If their organization only supported candidates who firmly pledged no PAC money, their contributions could breathe much-needed life into grassroots campaigns. Instead it looks more like an intentional obfuscation.”
At first glance, the prominent political action committee End Citizens United (ECU) appears to be dedicated to channeling widespread grassroots anger at corporate money in politics into promoting candidates who reject cash from big business and support bold campaign finance reform.
But a closer look at the candidates ECU endorses and funds reveals that the organization frequently uses its vast resources to reinforce the poisonous status quo. Continue reading →
The news came as the Kochs and others within their sprawling network of deep-pocketed donors and politicians were preparing to gather for a secretive weekend conference in Indian Wells, California. Continue reading →
On Friday night, the Senate passed their version of the #GOPTaxScam. The bill, all 479 pages of it, was presented to the full Senate just hours before the vote. The vote was along party lines, with the one dissenting vote among the Republicans coming from Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee.
So, what was in this bill, and why did they vote on it before all the Senators could actually read through the bill? We’re glad you asked. First, what’s in it.
A lot of the bill is what you’d expect. For example:
The top individual rate is reduced from 39.6% to 38.5%, and the threshold at which the top rate kicks in is increased from $418,000 for a single/$480,000 for married filing jointly to $500,000/$1,000,000
The estate tax exemption is doubled, to $11 million for a single taxpayer and $22 million for married taxpayers.
The corporate rate is reduced from 35% to 20%.
The top rate on the income earned by owners of “flow through” businesses — S corporations and partnerships — is reduced from 39.6% to a shade below 30%.
Questions about these measure that we were forced to ask include; how is it that corporations are able to keep the tax deductions that have now been excluded from individual tax bases? Why is the corporate tax is now LOWER than the top individual rate? If corporations are people too, why is there ANY difference in these tax rates?
Then, there’s the “Why are these items in a tax bill, anyways?” parts. These include:
The bill repeals the Johnson Amendment, which bans non-profit groups from engaging in political activism. This would mean that churches and the like could actively engage in elections without disclosing individual donors; think of it as Citizens United on steroids. This serves the purpose of blurring the lines between the separation of church and state, allowing the churches to donate and promote individual candidates in local and national elections, all while cloaked under the donation secrecy this provision allows.
Eliminating the individual mandate of the ACA. While this actually does deal with taxes (the fine for not being insured is paid as part of your taxes), removing the mandate means that younger and healthier people won’t buy insurance until they need it. These are the people who currently offset the cost of providing healthcare to the older and sicker people. Without this in place, premiums will rise dramatically more than the anticipated 10% over the next 10 years.
Of course, the individual tax cuts are set to expire, meaning that the middle class will see a tax increase. And, what’s going to pay for these? The GOP mantra’s always been that tax cuts pay for themselves, but others, such as Marco Rubio, have already admitted that the tax reform is part one of a two-step process designed to defund and eventually dismantle Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security; the very programs designed to help the elderly, disabled and poorest members of American society.
Now obviously, a lot of these proposals don’t sit well with the electorate. So, why the rush to pass it? The GOP needs a victory. Even with controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, this administration’s been notably inept in getting meaningful things accomplished. Furthermore, the GOP donor class has stated that the campaign money will dry up if they don’t get the tax cuts they want.
We still have a chance to stop this. The House and Senate bills now go to a conference committee. The bill that comes out of that will need to be passed by both houses. The healthcare fiasco this summer proves that if we’re loud and persistent enough, our message gets through. And, with the bill only having 37% approval before the vote, there’s enough of us to make the message get through.
And what if it doesn’t? The last time that the GOP had won control of both houses and the presidency before 2016 was 1928. The new tax bill looks even more extreme than the policies put into place by the Republicans after the 1928 election. Does anybody remember what happened in 1929?
Another annoying historical factoid that you may wish to remember at a time like this: 244 years ago, a group of people decided that they weren’t going to pay taxes without proper representation, and what became known as the Boston Tea Party took place. This in turn led to a revolution, and the founding of this country.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
These hearings often are contentious. That was the case for Justice Clarence Thomas in the early 1990s. And they surely won’t be a cake walk this time, given Democratic anger over Republican inaction on Merrick Garland, former President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016.
An obvious question for Judge Gorsuch is his view of the court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. That five-to-four decision divided sharply along perceived partisan lines. It affected the speech rights of corporations and unions in funding political ads shortly before elections. Committee Democrats no doubt will grill Gorsuch about Citizens United.
As the director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, I would like to suggest at least three other timely and vital questions he should be asked about speech rights – but that I doubt he will face.
Capturing cops on camera in public
The first question I’d pose to Gorsuch involves an issue the Supreme Court has never tackled – does the First Amendment protect a person’s right to record police officers doing their jobs in public places?
It’s a vital question in light of incidents such as the April 2015 shooting in the back of unarmed African-American Walter Scott by white police officer Michael Slager in South Carolina. A video of it was captured on a smartphone by barber Feidin Santana while walking to work. It was key evidence in Slager’s murder trial – which ended with a hung jury.
Without guidance from the Supreme Court about recording cops in public venues, lower courts have had to sort it out for themselves.
Just last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded in Turner v. Driver that “First Amendment principles, controlling authority, and persuasive precedent demonstrate that a First Amendment right to record the police does exist, subject only to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.” That’s a positive step in terms of creating a constitutional right to record cops within the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. But just what constitutes a “reasonable” restriction is extremely vague and problematic, especially because judges usually defer to officers’ judgments.
Worse still, some courts haven’t even recognized any First Amendment right to record police.
Gorsuch thus should be asked: “Do citizens have a First Amendment right to record police doing their jobs in public places and, if there is such a right, what – if any – are the specific limits on that right?”
Gorsuch should be questioned about the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and the limits on that right affecting political demonstrations on public streets, sidewalks and parks. The Supreme Court privileges such “quintessential public forums” for picketing and protests, and it carefully reviews any restrictions imposed there on speech and assembly. Would Gorsuch follow that tradition of protection?
Disturbingly, The New York Times reported earlier this month that lawmakers in more than 15 states are considering bills that would curb, to varying degrees, the right to protest. Some measures, such as Florida Senate Bill 1096, do so by requiring a special event permit be obtained before any protest on a street, thus stifling spontaneous demonstrations that might occur after a controversial executive order or a startling jury verdict.
Gorsuch thus should be asked: “What, if any, limits are there on the First Amendment right to engage in political speech in public spaces, including streets, sidewalks and parks?”
The right to offend
Finally, I’d ask Gorsuch for his views about the First Amendment right to offend. It’s an important topic today for three reasons.
First, protesters may use offensive language to capture attention and show the passion behind their views. The Supreme Court traditionally protects offensive political speech, as it famously did in 1971 in Cohen v. California. There it ruled in favor of Paul Robert Cohen’s First Amendment right to wear a jacket with the words “F— the Draft” in a Los Angeles courthouse hallway.
Second, some believe there’s a pall of political correctness in society, particularly in higher education. Some students may be deterred from using certain language or expressing particular viewpoints for fear they will offend others and thus be punished.
Third, the Supreme Court is set to rule in the coming months in a case called Lee v. Tam. It centers on the power of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to deny an Asian-American band called The Slants trademark registration over that name because it allegedly disparages Asians. The court heard oral argument in the case in January.
I’d thus ask Gorsuch: “When does offensive expression – in particular, offensive speech on political and social issues – lose protection under the First Amendment?”
Gorsuch already has submitted written answers to the Judiciary Committee on some issues, but not on the questions raised here. These topics – filming cops in public, protesting on streets and sidewalks, and using offensive language – seem especially relevant in a turbulent Trump era.
According to Public Citizen, the corporate-backed campaigns have an average of 10-to-1 financial advantage over their mostly grassroots opponents(Photo: Jason Hargrove/cc/flickr)
This election cycle, corporate donors are not just beefing up the war chests of their most-favored politicians. According to a new study, industry is flexing its Supreme Court- approved political power to dominate local democracy, as well.
In the study, Big Business Ballot Bullies(pdf), Public Citizen examined eight state-level ballot initiatives and referenda that have seen an outsized amount of political spending. According to the research, published Wednesday, the corporate-backed campaigns have an average of 10-to-1 financial advantage over their mostly grassroots opponents, with total corporate spending in those races topping $139 million. Continue reading →
Campaign fundraising is as dirty a game as politics itself. Anyone and everyone can be bought and sold for the right price. It starts with the insistent fundraising calls.
By Gretschman for Occupy World Writes
Call center agent. By FiveOne51 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Last night at 8:30 PM the house phone rang. Yes, some of us still have those old fashioned contrivances in our domiciles. The caller wished to speak with my father who has been dead for over 3 years. My wife asked who was calling. The caller identified himself as a solicitor for the Republican Party of Minnesota. Since we have both asked the Republican party solicitors many times to remove this name and phone number from their call lists because they are asking for a DEAD person, my wife asked for the solicitors’ supervisor to be put on the line. I took the phone, and after about two minutes “Josh” came on the line.
I asked “Josh” if he was a volunteer, or if he was paid to solicit for the Republican party. He said that he was indeed paid, and he was sorry to have troubled us, he would remove the diseased’s name and phone number from their records and that the Republican Party of Florida would not call us again. I asked him WHY the Republican Party of FLORIDA would be contacting people in Minnesota to solicit funds. I asked him WHERE he was calling from.
At this point “Josh” admitted that he had misunderstood where his solicitor was calling, he thought it was Florida, when in fact it was Minnesota, because they were soliciting funds for Stewart C. Mills III to wage a campaign against incumbent Rick Nolan in the 8th District of Minnesota. Mills ended up losing to Nolan in 2014.
“Josh” said that he was employed by a call center for the Republican Party based in Mankato Minnesota. Once “Josh” assured me yet again that his call center would not call our number again, I thanked him for that courtesy and my wife and I started researching what we would find out to be some startling truths about political fund raising -American style.
We first located the call center in Mankato, Minnesota. it is one of many businesses located in a multi-use building in the college town of Mankato. We did enough research to find out that the business “FLS Connect” has four call centers. One in St Cloud, Minnesota, one in Phoenix, Arizona, one in Springfield, Missouri and the one that we had contact with in Mankato. FLS Connect’s co-founder Jeff Larson, is a Karl Rove protege.
Being a call center solicitor for FLS Connect is a good job if you want to make ten dollars an hour and you have a criminal record as a felon. if you aren’t so good at persuading people to part with their money, you can become a “supervisor” who handles the actual credit card transactions of the money solicited by the people doing the solicitation. item of note though -“supervisors” at this company only receive nine dollars an hour. Our research into what current and former employees said about their workplaces was very eye-opening. One of the people reviewing the business said that it was a “great” job as long as you left your ‘conscience and morals’ at the door when you came to work. Another onetime employee stated that they were instructed not to let the person being solicited from off the line until a donation is made. The average length of employment at this business was less that two months.
The next thing we researched was why the scion of the Mills Fleet Farm chain of stores would need to have the Republican Party solicit donations on his behalf. During his 2014 race against Nolan, he said, “I will be playing a role in my campaign financially.” The Mills family recently sold out their family business to the tune of 1.2 billion dollars to the a “leading global investment firm, KKR, [who] manages investments across multiple asset classes including private equity, energy, infrastructure, real estate, credit and hedge funds.” It would seem that a political candidate might not need money from the constituents in his or her district with a ‘family ‘bank account that runs into ten figures. Running for political office must be more satisfying, or at least less painful when you lose if it is other peoples’ money that you are campaigning with.
The last point that we researched did not yield any answers. Why would the solicitors try to solicit money for a political candidate from the 8th district of Minnesota from potential donors who do NOT live in that district?
The sad part of this is that this style of solicitation is not just limited to one political party or certain political offices. Thanks to the SCOTUS “Citizens United” decision, the ever increasing amount of money required to keep up with the candidate on the other side of the ballot will cause this type of heavy handed solicitation by paid solicitors to become even more commonplace. Charities are required by law to provide information to donors about how much of their donations ACTUALLY go to said charity after expenses. I wonder what we would find out about political donations if the same standards were applied to politics.
Arizona Legislature special hearing on issues voters encountered during the recent primary. Photo: Chi Nieves/Facebook
The world is currently transfixed by the spectacle of American elections.
From New York, London and Paris to Beijing, Moscow, and Sydney there is endless heated debate in the news media and across dinner tables about the factors fueling the remarkable success of Donald Trump, speculation about a brokered convention shattering the old GOP, and the most likely outcome of a polarizing Trump-Clinton battle in the fall.
This contest matters. It is the election for the most powerful leader in the Western world, and some – like the Economist Intelligence Unit – regard Donald Trump as a major risk to global prosperity and stability. Also, as citizens of one of the world’s oldest democracies, Americans like to think that the United States provides an influential role model for how elections should run in other countries.
The Electoral Integrity Project (EIP), founded in 2012, provides an independent evaluation of the quality of elections worldwide. The EIP’s results have been published in several books, including my own Why Electoral Integrity Matters and Why Elections Fail – books that focus on comparing the quality of elections, understanding why problems arise, and diagnosing what can be done about these flaws.
We can use the data collected by the EIP to ask: Is the U.S. the electoral role model it imagines itself to be?
A democratic role model?
In practice, recent years have seen a long series of vulnerabilities in the conduct of American elections, as documented by the 2014 report of the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration. Indeed, these issues have been under close scrutiny ever since the notoriously flawed ballot design in Florida in 2000.
Since then, the Commission has reported wait times in excess of six hours to cast a ballot in Ohio, inaccurate state and local voter registers, insufficiently trained local poll workers, and the breakdown of voting machines in New York.
Standards remain uneven across the country. The Pew Center’s 2012 Election Performance Index, for instance, suggests that states such as North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin performed relatively well against a range of quality indicators combining voting convenience and electoral integrity. Other states, including California, Oklahoma, and Mississippi demonstrated noticeable shortfalls.
Problems reported by the media
It was no different during the 2014 midterm elections. The news media reported a range of problems on polling day – some trivial, others more serious. It is unclear whether these arose from accidental administrative mistakes or intentional dirty tricks.
At least 18 state election websites were reported to have experienced disruptions on election day, preventing voters from using the sites to locate polling places and ballot information.
In Virginia, a State Department of Elections spokesman said that 32 electronic voting machines at 25 polling places experienced problems. In both Virginia and North Carolina, the Washington Post reported cases of electronic polling machines which recorded a vote for the Democratic candidate when the screen was touched to cast a vote for the Republican. And in Texas the statewide voter registration system crashed, forcing many to complete provisional ballots when poll workers were unable to confirm voter eligibility.
Meanwhile, new state laws requiring electors to present photo identification caused confusion in several states, including Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina.
These problems are not fading away.
During the 2016 primary in North Carolina, there was confusion about new photo ID requirements and long lines. Court decisions over voter identification laws currently remain pending in Texas and Virginia.
Problems of money in politics
As well as repeated procedural flaws, there has been speculation that public disgust with the role of money in politics, and the role of major donors in buying access to Congress, is one of the major factors driving the primary campaigns.
Much of Trump’s visibility comes from exploiting his advantage in attracting free social media and spending less on TV airwaves than any other major candidate. He commonly claims that his organization is more self-funded than most presidential campaigns, without support by a super-PAC. This may appeal to voters who are suspicious of the role of money in American elections and of the honesty of politicians who are seen to be in the pockets of rich donors and corporate interests.
Similarly, Bernie Sanders has campaigned on his ability to raise funds from multiple small donors. He claims Hillary Clinton has been more beholden to establishment donors and fat fees from corporate speaking engagements.
Suspicion of the role of money in politics seems to be widespread.
In the 2012 National Election Survey, for example, when the public was asked whether ‘Rich people buy elections’, two-thirds of Americans agreed with this statement.
Comparing the U.S. to other democracies
Some may be tempted to think headlines are exaggerating the true extent of any problems in America by highlighting negative cases which are actually fairly isolated.
Is there actually more systematic evidence suggesting that American elections are flawed? And how does the U.S. compare with other long-standing democracies worldwide?
New evidence that gives insights into this issue has been gathered by the Electoral Integrity Project. This independent research project is funded by the Australian Research Council’s Laureate award with a team of researchers based at the University of Sydney and Harvard University.
The 2015 annual Year in Election report compares the risks of flawed and failed elections, and looks at how well countries around the world meet international standards. The report gathers assessments from over 2,000 experts to evaluate the perceived integrity of all 180 national parliamentary and presidential contests held between July 1, 2012 to December 31, 2015 in 139 countries worldwide. These include 54 national elections held last year.
Forty experts were asked to assess each election by answering 49 questions The overall 100-point Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index is constructed by summing up the responses.
This chart compares and contrasts the overall 100-point PEI index for all elections held since 2012 in the Western democracies covered in the survey. In the U.S., this covers both the 2012 presidential elections and the 2014 Congressional contests.
Americans often express pride in their democracy, yet the results indicate that domestic and international experts rate the U.S. elections as the worst among all Western democracies.
Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden are at the top of the ranking, all scoring over 80 on the 100 point PEI Index. Several democracies from diverse regions and cultures – for example, Israel and Canada – are ranked in the middle of the pack.
But the U.S. scores 62, a full 24 points lower than Denmark and Finland. The UK also performs fairly poorly, along with Greece and Australia. One reason for this is that proportional electoral systems – which translate votes into seats on a proportional basis – usually tend to score higher as they provide more inclusive opportunities for smaller parties. All of the Nordic countries, for example, use a proportional system.
Comparisons can also be drawn with all 180 parliamentary and presidential elections included in the latest report, covering 139 countries worldwide. The 2012 U.S. presidential election ranks 60th out of 180 elections worldwide, close to Bulgaria, Mexico and Argentina.
This is no one-time shortcoming. The 2014 U.S. Congressional elections rank even worse, 65th out of 180 worldwide.
By contrast, elections in many newer democracies are seen by experts to perform far better in the global comparison, such as in Lithuania (ranked 4th), Costa Rica (6th), and Slovenia (8th).
What stages of U.S. elections are weakest?
NORRIS Fig Author provided
What produces these results? To explore this issue, EIP also conducted a second survey with almost 200 experts to compare the performance of the 2014 congressional elections across 21 U.S. states.
The results show that the worst problem across most states involved gerrymandering of district boundaries to favor incumbents. The mean score for American states was just 42 on a 100-point scale.
Other weaknesses concerned whether electoral laws were unfair to smaller parties like the Green Party, favored the governing party, or restricted voter’s rights.
Campaign finance – for example, whether parties and candidates had equitable access to public subsidies and political donations – was also seen by experts as a problem.
Finally voter registration was also viewed critically. Issues here included whether the register itself was accurate with, in some cases, citizens not listed and, in others, ineligible electors registered.
By contrast, voting processes were rated more favorably. Factors here included whether any fraudulent votes were cast, whether the voting process was easy, whether voters were offered a genuine choice at the ballot box, along with the vote count and post-election results. These last two measures each received a high score of 85.
Much debate in the U.S. focuses upon potential risks of fraud or voter suppression at the ballot box, but in fact experts rate earlier stages of American elections more critically.
Why are American elections so bad?
Why are American elections particularly vulnerable to these sorts of problems? It is a complex story.
In my book, Why Elections Fail, I argue that a large part of the blame can be laid at the door of the degree of decentralization and partisanship in American electoral administration. Key decisions about the rules of the game are left to local and state officials with a major stake in the outcome. For example, gerrymandering arises from leaving the processes of redistricting in the hands of state politicians, rather than more impartial judicial bodies.
Moreover, the role of money in American campaigns has become progressively deregulated in recent decades, thanks in part to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, while election costs have spiraled. Add to that the fuel of an inflammatory campaign by Donald Trump, and the prospects for agreement about the outcome of the election become more remote.
Pippa Norris, ARC Laureate Fellow, Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney and McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Harvard University
Campaign finance reform advocates have rallied against super PACs’ ability to influence elections since their creation in 2010, and new reporting by the Washington Postputs a spotlight on how “ghost corporations” are pumping money into these committees, with their big money contributors hiding behind a veil of secrecy.
As the Center for Responsive Politics explains: “super PACs may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates,” though they “are prohibited from donating money directly to political candidates.” They report their donors to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) monthly during an election year. Continue reading →
The California high court decision paves the way for the state legislature to put the ballot measure before voters statewide in 2016. (Photo: hjl/flickr/cc)
When it ruled Monday that California lawmakers can ask for voters’ opinions on campaign-spending laws, the state Supreme Court underscored “that the ultimate power of our government is vested in the people,” Common Cause senior vice president Karen Hobert Flynn declared in the wake of the decision.
By upholding the legality of Proposition 49—which would ask voters whether Congress should propose an amendment overturning the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United—the court spoke “directly to the question we have faced since the Citizens United ruling,” Hobert Flynn continued. “Are we a democracy of, by, and for the people, or are we to be ruled by an elite, moneyed class, where the power of government rests in the hands of a few wealthy special interests?” Continue reading →