Supreme Court's Latest Sabotage of Democratic Process -- Are Only Wealthy Corporations Supposed to Have a Say in Our Government?

June 28, 2011
Steven Rosenfeld

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court¹s reigning conservative majority issued yet another campaign finance decision where it narrowed the options for campaigns and candidates to run for office without relying on the largesse of wealthy people and institutions.

This particular case involved an Arizona public financing law, which was adopted more than a decade ago with the hope that any candidate who obtained enough legal petition signatures (to qualify as a candidate) and small contributions was entitled to matching funds -- public funds, yes, taxpayer money to pay toward the cost of campaigning.

The idea behind public financing was to create a new way for ordinary people to run for office without spending two-thirds of their day on the phone begging for money from the small slice of Americans who donate to campaigns; and, if elected, to ensure that the candidate would not be unduly beholden or obligated to their donors¹ priorities. In other words, public financing lessened the prospect for corruption and heightened the possibility elected officials might better-represent average Americans.

Progressive groups that have championed public financing and other reforms such as greater disclosure of campaign donors and those paying for political ads immediately issued a series of press releases saying that the sky did not entirely fall with the ruling. They reminded everyone that the Court concluded there was a constitutional role for public financing, but, alas, just not in yet another state where it is now law.

To recap the high court¹s recent record: In the Citizens United case, it ended a century-old ban on corporate contributions. In Vermont, another state experimenting with public financing, it struck down its contribution limits as too low. It rolled back aspects of the federal McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. And now Arizona¹s matching funds cannot be based on the actual spending of a publicly financed candidate¹s opponents.

On election law blogs on Monday, pro-public financing attorneys have been writing that they are relieved that the Court did not throw out the reform entirely and opined it might be revived, such as instituting "lump sum" public campaign grants.

But make no mistake. That hope may be the best progressives have, but it is akin to throwing crumbs to starving masses. It leaves very little realistic recourse for publicly financed candidates to run in any race that is more than slightly competitive. A decade ago, the best progressive minds crafted the provisions that the high court has dismantled based on real world campaigns‹where the deepest pockets monopolize the microphone because out-sized advertising buys drown out debate.

Progressives must realize that the democratic process is under attack from institutions and interests that do not want majority participation and majority rule.

The latest Court ruling is part of a tide of Republican-led efforts that are not interested in debate, compromise or abiding by election results. The GOP¹s strategists are heading into the 2012 election by seeking to limit who can vote by adopting tougher voter ID laws in swing states. They are replacing who is legally eligible to vote with who has the correct form of voter ID. The corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been urging state legislators to toughen ID requirements for people who do not have state-issued photo IDs, such as students, poor people, minorities and some elderly.

The Tea Party wing of the GOP has been going further -- literally encouraging followers at its conventions to prepare themselves to stand in the doorway of polling places in 2012 and challenge the credentials of individual voters under the guise of election integrity. Most states have voter challenge laws, although they are decades old and rarely used. However, these right-wingers apparently do not want opponents or critics to vote.

These shades of Jim Crow have been time-tested, because their backers know that to complicate the voting process is to deter turnout and prompt ordinary people to give up on the political process. Similarly, the high Court¹s conservatives do not want alternate means for candidates to seek office that does not rely on institutional wealth and power, or seeks to balance the voices of those who want to monopolize political discourse.

The only response for progressives is to name the electoral thugs and use the communication tools at our disposal to resist the reactionary forces. Even if we have not seen the change we voted for in 2008, do we have a choice as we head into 2012? The country, yet again, needs a progressive democracy movement.

Steven Rosenfeld is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).