Wednesday, November 2, 2016

How to Rig an Election

There has been a great deal of talk about rigging elections this year.  The Democratic Party has criticized Republican attempts to institute voter ID laws, Bernie Sanders’s supporters have claimed that the Democratic National Committee tipped the scales in favor of Hilary Clinton during the Democratic primaries, and now Donald Trump is warning us that his election will be stolen by voter fraud.  Among these accusations and others, some have more merit than others, but all of them overlooked the real way in which this election -- and all our elections -- have been rigged.  

A Brief History

The simplest and certainly the most effective way to rig an election is through the private funding of campaigns.  Elections in the U.S. always have been funded primarily privately, mostly by rich people associated with businesses, but the modern period of campaign finance began in the last years of the 19th century with the activities of Mark Hanna, a key campaign adviser to William McKinley.  Hanna was especially skilled at eliciting campaign contributions from bank executives.  He expected them to contribute money in proportion to their bank’s share of the nation’s prosperity.  Hanna is reported to have once said, “There are only two important things in politics.  The first is money, and I can’t remember the second.”  With the election of 1896, the excesses of the “Gilded Age” had come to affect politics as never before.  This produced a reaction that brought about a number of important electoral reforms, including a 1907 law prohibiting corporate contributions to federal political campaigns.  Still, this did not end the influence of big money in politics.  Business owners and other wealthy individuals remained able to make large personal contributions as well as illegal contributions, due the absence of a dedicated regulatory agency.  They did so for several decades, but again, a reaction resulted in the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 which capped campaign spending on media buys and required the disclosure of campaign contributions.  The Watergate scandal is often seen as a scandal about a burglary, but at its heart, it was a campaign finance scandal.  Millions of dollars in secret cash were delivered to the Committee to Re-elect the President in suitcases and satchels in order to avoid the disclosure requirements of the Federal Election Campaign Act. 

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Congress passed the 1974 amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act.  This placed limits on campaign contributions and spending.  It also established, for the first time, a dedicated regulatory body:  the Federal Election Commission; however, in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court struck down spending limits for both candidate political committees and independent political committees.  This opened the way for individuals to influence elections through contributions to numerous political action committees (PACs), federal, state, and local party committees, and “leadership PACs” established by prominent politicians.  Many of these committees were exempt from disclosing their donors.  Consequently, Buckley v. Valeo undid the most significant elements of campaign finance reform and established the legal precedent that any amount of spending was protected by the 1st Amendment.  This was defended (and criticized) with the slogan “money is speech.”

As before, the excesses of money in politics led to new calls for reform, resulting in the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), sponsored by Senators McCain and Feingold and Congressmen Shays and Meehan.  Importantly, the BCRA (1) made party political committees and independent PACs subject to federal constraints and it (2) prohibited the airing of “issue advocacy ads” within 60 days of an election, if the ad mentioned a candidate by name.  It also (3) prohibited all issue advocacy ads that were paid for by corporations, unions, and non-profit advocacy groups.  It should be no surprise, though, that moneyed interests again were able to skirt the restrictions.  They did so by using political organizations defined under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code.  These “527s” were not covered by the BCRA.  Worse yet, all three important restrictions established by the BCRA soon were struck down by the Supreme Court.  F.E.C v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. (2007) permitted party and independent PACs again to raise and spend money without federal restrictions.  Citizens United v. F.E.C. (2010) permitted non-profit corporations to produce issue advocacy ads mentioning candidate names and air them at any time.  Since then, both rulings have been reaffirmed and broadened by the courts.  Citizens United has been broadened to permit the unlimited funding of PACs by corporations and unions.  Consequently, we now live in the most unregulated, private campaign funding environment since before 1907.

Two Ways to Rig an Election

A private campaign finance system may not be a sure mechanism for directly electing specific individuals, but it certainly loads the dice in favor of certain kinds of candidates.  First and most obviously, campaigns which are well-funded have the ability to conduct larger and better developed political communication campaigns. They can open offices and hire professional staff members who can then – with greater resources – conduct polls and focus groups, analyze the electorate, design effective messages, purchase advertising that will help shape the issues upon which the election will be decided, and mount an effective get-out-the-vote campaign. These advantages mean that a candidate that meets the approval of and therefore receives the financial support of donors will have a greater chance of winning office than candidates who do not receive the largess of donors.  It is important to recognize that this advantage does not depend on bribery or selling one’s legislative power to donors.  The system simply benefits those candidates with whom donors agree.

This leads us to the second way in which our private system of campaign financing rigs (or loads the dice) of our elections.  It is true that a relatively large campaign treasury will not guarantee the election of the candidate, but according to research done by the U.S. Public Research Interest Group examining the 2000 congressional elections, better funded campaigns won general elections 94% of the time and the results for primary elections were similar (90%).  If we understand elections as periodic, society-wide events that install thousands of federal and state officials, the effect of our private campaign finance system becomes clear.  If well-financed candidates have a much better chance of winning an election, officials who get elected will tend to reflect the preferences of campaign financiers; not simply because candidates seek to curry favor among the donor class, but because the campaign financiers will only donate to candidates who are in line with their preferences.  This will lead to legislatures and executive officers that will enact public policies that serve the interests the donor class and not necessarily the entire body politic, since the interests of these two groups are not always aligned.

Let’s look at some of the data about this.  First of all, people making contributions to political campaigns are comparatively well-off.  According research by Douglas Phelps, 90% of donations in the 2002 congressional primaries came in amounts at or above $500 – donations much larger than what the average citizen makes.  These donations were made by just 0.1% of the voting age population.  So very few of us make campaign donations and those of us who do usually make rather large donations.  Phelps goes on to report that a survey conducted just five years earlier revealed that nearly 80% of those who donated $200 or more in the 1996 congressional elections earned more than $100,000 per year.  That is, four out of five campaign financiers were in the top 14% of the country’s income earners and the vast majority of those who gave larger sums and donated to numerous candidates earned more than $250,000 per year.  That is, people who were the most influential donors were in the top 1.5% of earners.  It should come as no surprise that in the decades since these studies were done, F.E.C v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc., Citizens United v. F.E.C.,  and other court rulings have only made this problem worse. 

This amounts to rigging not just individual elections, but to loading the dice for all elections in a way that serves the interests of the donor class.  It occurs not because of the conscious actions of a small conspiracy stuffing ballot boxes or suppressing the vote, but as the natural and inconspicuous consequence of the election laws that have been put in place by successful politicians.  The result is that public policies passed into law conform to the preferences of the economic elite and only incidentally reflect the preferences of the general population.  This was demonstrated recently in research done by Martin Gilens, Professor of Politics at Princeton University and Benjamin Page, Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University in their article “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”  Gilens and his graduate students examined survey data indicating the preferences of American citizens regarding 1,779 policy issues. They recorded the political preferences of citizens with median incomes (typical incomes) and the preferences of citizens at the 90th percentile of incomes (wealthy incomes).  They then compared these two sets of preferences to actual policy changes that occurred within four years of when the surveys were done.  They discovered that policy changes strongly correlated with the preferences of the wealthy citizens, but correlated with typical citizens’ preferences only when they happened to be the same as the preferences of the wealthy.  Giles and Page wrote, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”  Let that sink in.  "Mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence" over public policy.

The influence of wealth in our political system is greatest at the highest levels of government, but it exists at the state and local level as well.  Normally, if  candidate at lower levels of government conforms to the interests of the wealthy, they become potential candidates for office at higher levels.  Their track record at lower levels is what makes them able to attract large donations early in higher level campaigns, thereby driving out less well-funded competitors and then raising yet more money later on.  This early pursuit of campaign donations was put in the spotlight by the PAC, EMILY’s List, which is an acronym for “early money is like yeast.”  This is why the first phase of federal and state-wide campaigns involves prospective candidates making the rounds of known big donors to try to excite interest.  Failing to get support from big money donors early on means the candidate’s chances for election will be slight and he or she will not be taken seriously by the media.  The effort to procure this early money has been dubbed “the wealth primary.”  Very few candidates ultimately succeed who do poorly in the wealth primary. 

What we must keep in mind here is that the private campaign finance system allows people who can afford to make large contributions much greater political influence, not just over what our officials do, but over who our officials are.  A single donor who can give $100,000 dollars in an election cycle has the same influence in the wealth primary as one thousand donors who can give only $100 dollars, and of course there are billionaires and multimillionaires who donate much more  than  $100,000 dollars in an election cycle.  The political influence of Tom Steyer and his wife Kathyrn Taylor would be equal to the influence of a city of 672,862 people or roughly Detroit, Michigan, and the influence of Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam would be equal to the influence of a city of 473,572 people or roughly Kansas City, Missouri, if each of their residents including infants and children contributed $100 dollars. Thus, we are left with a system that does not ensure effective, equal political participation on the basis of one person, one vote.  Instead, we have a system that affords political influence based on how rich a person is.  This is the very definition of plutocracy.

In summary, it seems clear that the wealthy are able to effect public policy to their liking, while the rest of the population is excluded from the decision making process.  This is the natural consequence of an electoral system which produces officials that were made viable for office by the wealthy donor class.  While high school civics teachers, media commentators, and elected officials are largely united in saying that we live in a democracy, on closer examination we see that it is a plutocracy – a government that is not of, by, and for the people, but of, by, and for the wealthiest people.  Elections – the ostensible hallmark of democracy – are, in the U.S., a public ritual in which we legitimate the officials that have been chosen for us by the wealthy.  At best, we are given the role of arbitrating political disagreements between competing sectors of wealthy people.

Rigging Re-election

Once in office, officials have numerous ways of rigging their own re-elections.  They, of course, have a much greater ability to load the dice by making contacts with like-minded wealthy donors and their prominent position gives them a powerful pulpit for campaigning year-round among those donors.  They generally do not have to worry about establishing “name recognition.”  In a 2012 study, Stockemer and Praino report that between 1952 and 2008, incumbents running for a seat in the U.S. House won reelection at rates between 89% and 99%, demonstrating just how strong the incumbent advantage is.  More specifically, Abramowitz, Alexander, and Gunning (2006) found that “the reelection rate of House incumbents has increased from 87% between 1946 and 1950 to 94% between 1952 and 1980, 97% between 1982 and 2000, and 99% in the 2002–2004 elections.” 

The greatest advantage of incumbency, however, is the opportunity to participate in drawing district lines after the decadal U.S. census.  By carefully gerrymandering districts, elected officials choose their voters instead of allowing voters to choose their elected officials.  The two clearest techniques for doing this is (1) to concentrate a large number of voters of the opposition party into a single district, thereby giving those voters only one representative when their numbers would deserve more and (2) to dilute voters of the opposition party across several districts so that they again are underrepresented.  In these cases, the elections are rigged state-wide by the party that controls the redistricting process.  This is done by both the Republican and Democratic Parties.  For example, in 2014 in Democratic Maryland, Republican candidates for the House of Representatives received 42% of votes for major party candidates.  That should yield at least three Republican representatives out of eight for the state, but due to the district lines, Maryland Republicans have only one representative.  In Republican Georgia, Democratic candidates for the House received 41.5% of votes for major party candidates.  That should yield roughly six Democratic representatives out of 14 for the state, but again due to the district lines, Georgia Democrats have only four representatives.  This undemocratic representation of voters could be more or less rectified by appointing non-partisan redistricting commissions with binding authority, but the majority parties in most states prefer to rig their elections to ensure disproportionate representation.  So not only are voters relegated to legitimating candidates presented to them by the donor class, many of voters are deprived of any effective role because of gerrymandering. 

Other Rigging Techniques

Of course when we think of rigging elections, we tend to think of fraudulent voting, stuffing ballot boxes, tampering with computer code, misreporting results, and numerous techniques to suppress the vote.  It is possible that many of these activities do take place from time to time and one should not minimize their harms.  Voter ID laws and the disenfranchisement of ex-felons stands out here, but they other techniques are probably relatively rare and unlikely to tip any but the closest elections.  None of them constitute a critical threat to democratic rule on a society-wide basis.  Focusing on election rigging of this sort distracts our attention from the systemic rigging that generally goes on unnoticed and does have a society-wide effect.

One voter suppression technique that is seldom mentioned is restricting ballot access.  Unlike many of the techniques just mentioned, this is a wholesale suppression of the vote which tends to restrict the topics that can enter the public debate.  Voters who seek to cast their ballots for candidates in parties other than the Republican and Democratic Parties are often precluded from doing so by onerous restrictions that prevent their candidates from even appearing on the ballot.  The Democratic Party is particularly aggressive about blocking ballot access.  Party lawyers frequently challenge petition signatures and file court cases to block their political opponents from even being a choice for the voters. 

Beyond these methods, the Democratic and Republican Parties both have rigged the presidential elections (and similarly state elections) in their favor by forming the Commission on Presidential Debates and writing rules that effectively preclude other candidates from participating in the debates and thus gaining a forum.  Finally, the marginalization of alternative political views is reinforced by a corporate media which provides the donor-approved candidates with billions of dollars of free media; meanwhile, they almost invariably ignore, dismiss, and sometimes ridicule any competing candidates.


What is the most significant conclusion we can draw from the foregoing?  Elections in the United States are the property of a rich donor class which uses them to legitimate public officials who then can be expected to act in the interest of the donor class.  Simply put, we do not live in a democracy.  We live in a plutocracy as sure as any exists.  It is up to us to decide what we do under these circumstances, but if we truly are committed to democracy, we must ask ourselves, how are we to behave as citizens of a plutocracy?

Sources consulted for this essay include:

·       Abramowitz, Alan I., Brad Alexander, and Matthew Gunning, “Incumbency, Redistricting, and the Decline of Competition in U.S. House Elections,” Journal of Politics, 68(1), February 2006.
·       “Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act,” Federal Register, 68(2), January 3, 2003.
·       Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976).
·       Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
·       Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc., 551 U.S. 449 (2007).
·       Gilens, Martin and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, 12(3), Sept. 2014.
·       Guide to U.S. Elections, Deborah Kalb, ed., Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 2005.
·       Lioz, Adam and Gary Kalman, The Wealth Primary: The Role of Big Money in the 2006 Congressional Primaries, Washington, D.C.: U.S. PIRG Education Fund, 2006.
·       Makinson, Larry, Speaking Freely: Washington Insiders Talk About Money in Politics, 2nd edition, Washington D.C.: Center for Responsive Politics, 2003.
·, accessed November 2, 2016.
·       Phelps, Douglas H., “Leveling the Playing Field,” National Civic Review, 93(2), Summer 2004.
·       Raskin, Jamin and John Bonifaz, “Equal Protection and the Wealth Primary,” Yale Law & Policy Review, 11(273), 1993.
·       Stockemer, Daniel and Rodrigo Praino, "The Incumbency Advantage in the US Congress: A Roller-Coaster Relationship," Politics, 32(3), October 2012.

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