While Election Day may have been a “good day for democracy,” the challenges to our election system are accelerating
During his post-election news conference, President Joe Biden declared that Election Day was a “good day for democracy.” Certainly, the thousands of poll workers, local officials and election protection volunteers that helped ensure the day happened without any major incidents deserve our gratitude and praise.
But no one should conclude that American democracy is A-OK based on what transpired over the past few weeks.
The Declaration For American Democracy coalition advocates for federal legislation that would create national standards to protect our freedom to vote, get big money out of politics, stop partisan election manipulation and guarantee that congressional districts are drawn to give fair representation for all.
The 2022 election cycle demonstrates that these sorts of bold and transformative reforms are still desperately needed to make the promise of democracy real for every American.
Earlier this year, Senate Republicans blocked full public debate of the John R. Lewis: Freedom to Vote Act, and they have blocked similar legislation five times over the past two years, despite broad support for pro-voter measures. Now we see the outcome of that ruinous calculation – plummeting faith in our election system, increasing barriers to voting, billionaires using their money and power to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.
If pro-voter reform is out of reach for the incoming Congress, then President Joe Biden must take executive action. Here’s why …
Voters of Every Background Believe Democracy Is Under Threat
Democracy was on many voters’ minds when they went to the polls in 2022. The AP VoteCast poll of more than 94,000 voters across the nation found that 44 percent of those surveyed said the future of democracy was the main factor in their decision making. Sixty-eight percent of those who were surveyed as part of the National Election Pool’s exit poll said that democracy is either somewhat or very threatened.
While the Beltway narrative continues to paint voting rights and democracy issues as partisan, the vast majority of Americans agree that democracy is under attack. Furthermore, many Americans characterize that threat as “corruption,” the influence of money in politics or powerful elites on our government.
- An August 2022 CBS News poll found that seven in 10 (72 percent) Americans believe that democracy and the rule of law are somewhat or very threatened. And what was the number one thing that respondents believed was a major threat? “The influence of money in politics.”
- An October 2022 New York Times/Siena College poll found similar results, with 71 percent of registered voters agreeing that American democracy is “currently under threat.” When asked to provide one or two words to summarize the threat to democracy, the number one response was some version of “corruption” or non-specific politicians. This was higher than those who named Democrats or Republicans, Joe Biden or Donald Trump, “socialism” or political extremism.
When looking specifically at young voters’ attitudes toward our democracy, the findings are even more dire.
- From an August 2022 YouGov poll: “Young Americans believe politics is controlled by powerful, unaccountable forces. They are especially concerned about the role of the Supreme Court (the top-ranked culprit for the political status quo at 23 percent) and big corporations (the second-ranked at 14 percent).”
Americans have identified the problem; now they want leaders to do something about it. The Midterm Election Voter Poll, which surveyed more than 12,000 voters, found broad support for “passing a new voting rights act to ensure that all eligible Americans can vote without barriers,” with 83 percent of Americans in support. This is in line with polling from early 2022 that showed large majorities supported federal legislation to protect the freedom to vote and restore the Voting Rights Act.
As the 2022 election demonstrated, we’re going through the motions of democracy – we have regularly scheduled elections, with millions of people casting their ballots – but unfortunately, many Americans still perceive that the will of the people is being ignored, no matter which party comes out on top. Things are not getting better, instead …
Challenges to Democracy Are Accelerating
While the final results are still pending, there are some clear concerns that emerged as Americans cast their ballots in the 2022 midterm elections.
Barriers to Voting
While we’re still weeks away from determining the final turnout percentages for 2022, the overall trend indicates this was a relatively high turnout midterm election. Some might conclude that national standards to protect the freedom to vote are unnecessary because of that high turnout.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In state after state in the days leading up to Election Day, we saw reports of voter intimidation and attempts to silence voters’ voices.
- In Arizona, a federal judge had to issue a restraining order to stop a group of armed individuals from harassing voters who were using a drop box to return their ballots.
- In Georgia, eligible voters were unable to cast a ballot because a group had challenged their eligibility and officials had removed them from the registration rolls.
- In Florida, election officials reported voters being verbally harassed when trying to cast their ballots at early voting sites.
- In Texas, a local Republican Party official has been knocking on voters’ doors and falsely accusing them of voting illegally.
The Brennan Center has tracked 42 new anti-voter laws in 21 states since January 2021.
Billionaires, Secret Money and Foreign Money
A pre-Election Day analysis by OpenSecrets predicted that state and federal election spending would top $16.7 billion for the 2022 cycle, far exceeding any previous midterm election.
The spending spree is being driven mainly by billionaires and wealthy special interests dropping absurd amounts of money into (ostensibly) independent groups, as well as their own campaigns. Through the end of September, Americans for Tax Fairness calculated that 465 billionaires had spent $881 million on federal elections. That incomplete figure is already a 44 percent increase over the 2018 total, illustrating how billionaire campaign spending is continuing to escalate since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlimited political contributions.
All of that big-donor cash is perverting our political system. Billionaires like Richard Uihlein, Peter Thiel and Sam Bankman-Fried spent big this cycle to prop up their chosen candidates in primaries and push their own agendas, whether it’s pro-crypto legislation (Bankman-Fried) or ultra-conservative social policies (Uihlein). Even Mitch McConnell must have some misgivings about allowing a mercurial billionaire like Thiel to exert so much power over the candidate selection process through super PACs that brazenly flout campaign finance laws.
But wealthy donors aren’t just giving to super PACs – in many cases, they’re donating to their own campaigns. An Insider report found 22 self-funding candidates had donated more than $435 million to their own races. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in FEC v. Cruz, self-funders can now pay themselves back unlimited sums from donors, leading to campaign contributions going directly into candidates’ pockets. Of course, this tactic is only available to wealthy candidates who can afford to make massive loans to their campaign coffers. As running for political office increasingly becomes a rich person’s game, Congress will become even more inattentive to the needs of middle-class Americans.
And while Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter isn’t political spending, strictly speaking, Dean Baker recently noted that billionaires like Musk or Rupert Murdoch owning vast social and mass media networks is perhaps even more destructive to democracy, as election misinformation flows freely from Fox News to Facebook to your family group chat and back again.
Another escalating trend is secret money moving from nonprofit groups, which often do not have to reveal their donors, into super PACs, which can do direct political activity. Secret money groups aren’t just hiding dirty politics – in several states, they’ve been part of criminal scandals.
- In Ohio, the former state House Speaker was indicted in “likely the largest bribery, money-laundering scheme ever perpetrated” in state history.
- In Florida, secret money funded a “ghost candidate” scheme that has already led to the conviction of a local GOP leader.
- In Oklahoma, the state auditor was hit with secret money attacks – likely funded by a charter school operator – after the auditor found the school had wasted $20 million in taxpayer dollars. The fraud is now under criminal investigation.
It is also becoming clear that foreign powers are making use of the gaps in U.S. anti-corruption and election laws to move money directly into our elections. For instance, a Washington Post story that broke earlier this month detailed how the United Arab Emirates had “exploit[ed] the vulnerabilities in American governance, including its reliance on campaign contributions, susceptibility to powerful lobbying firms and lax enforcement of disclosure laws intended to guard against interference by foreign governments,” according to intelligence officials.
In another example of foreign manipulation of our elections, a recent FEC split decision traced how a Putin-connected Russian oligarch funneled money through a web of shell corporations and opaque nonprofits into a Louisiana election. This conduit contribution scheme, and others like it, making use of opaque nonprofits that are the heart of the country’s secret money disaster, demonstrates that protecting our democracy by reforming our anti-corruption and election laws is a national security imperative.
The 2022 election was the first congressional election cycle after redistricting, and the new maps illustrated the need for fair maps for many Americans living in states where politicians drew the lines for political gain, rather than communities’ needs.
- In Ohio, voters had to cast their ballots in districts that had been ruled as unconstitutional by the state’s supreme court multiple times.
- In Alabama, politicians packed and cracked Black voters to dilute their power.
- In Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated a congressional district map that had been rejected by the governor because it did not add a second majority-minority district.
Partisan gerrymandering led to fewer competitive districts in states including Texas, Oregon and Illinois. In contrast, in states where independent commissions drew the congressional district maps (for example, Colorado and Michigan) we saw more competitive races.
The U.S. Supreme Court will issue final decisions on Alabama and Louisiana’s racially gerrymandered maps in 2023, likely further eroding the Voting Rights Act’s protections.
The dominance of big and secret political money, the deliberate barriers to voting and fewer competitive districts are continuing to erode public confidence in our political system and making voters believe their voices aren’t being heard.
Solutions Exist – And Communities Are Taking Action
The John R. Lewis: Freedom to Act would address many of these problems. However, Senate Republicans have continued to block comprehensive democracy reform legislation. That’s why the Declaration for American Democracy coalition has called on President Joe Biden to take action, recommending executive orders that would protect and strengthen our elections; support justice, equity and the rule of law; build an ethical and accountable government; and combat corruption. One of those solutions is a contractor disclosure executive order, which would require contractors that receive over $1 million from the federal government to disclose all their political spending, which would be the first blow to secret money since the 2010 ruling in FEC v. Citizens United.
In addition, states and local communities aren’t waiting for federal action. Here are just a few examples of state and local ballot measures that won approval on Tuesday:
- Michigan’s Proposal 2, the “Promote the Vote” initiative, won with nearly 60 percent of the vote. The initiative will require ballot drop boxes, nine days of early voting, allow any voter to cast their ballot by mail, ensure military and overseas ballots are counted if postmarked by Election Day and recognize the right to vote without harassment or intimidation.
- In Arizona, 73 percent of voters supported Proposition 211, the “Voters’ Right to Know Act,” which requires disclosure of the major donors to independent expenditure committees.
- Oakland voters overwhelmingly backed Measure W, the Oakland Fair Elections Act, which also requires independent expenditure ads to list their top donors, lowers campaign contribution limits and creates an innovative “Democracy Dollars” program to allow every Oakland resident to be a campaign donor.
- In Portland, Maine, a projected 65 percent of voters approved Question 3 to expand the state’s popular Clean Elections program to city elections.
These victories – driven by grassroots organizations – show that voters want substantive reforms that can make the promise of democracy real for all of us.