In today’s Presidential sweepstakes money is more influential than ever before. It has always been the fuel that campaigns run on, however, today they require more of that fuel than ever. This reality combined with the Supreme Court Citizens United decision sets the table for a redefinition of the meaning of a democratic election. It is clear, even this early in the 2016 campaign process, that the highest priority among those seeking the nomination is the acquisition of funds. It is a fact therefore that due to the incredibly high cost of pursuing a campaign through the primary season followed by the general election, those donors willing to spend the most money have the greatest influence. The election finance laws that were passed by Congress following the Watergate trauma prevented an individual donor from achieving a high level of influence through a campaign contribution by limiting the amount he was allowed to donate. However, the Citizens United ruling severely altered the landscape and changed the character of what we still call a democratic electoral process. Is it time to ask, is it still as democratic as we would like to believe?
While our “democratic electoral process” has never been completely democratic, we have always strived to achieve that goal. Throughout our history the right to vote has been gradually expanded enabling an ever-growing electorate to influence the outcome of elections. We have proudly taught school children the principle of “one man, one vote”. Participation in this process has always been viewed as a privilege experienced by too few around the world. While the principle of “one man, one vote”, is still true in theory, we must begin to question the value of that vote. What if some votes are more valuable than others? What if casting an actual vote at the ballot box is only secondary to the vote cast at the cash box? What if that cash vote enables the voter to influence the policies and attitudes of a candidate, while a vote at the ballot box simply places the candidate in a position to carry out the wishes of the cash voters? Is each vote still equal? Does the principle of “one man, one vote” still hold up? Has the ever-increasing importance of money in our political campaigns corrupted the process? Is it still as democratic as we would like to believe?
Certainly money has always influenced elections to some degree. While, as noted above, there were laws preventing huge contributions, there were loopholes that provided those who wanted to give a bit more that opportunity. But today we are not talking about a bit more, we are talking about commitments in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. Furthermore, those who are making these commitments have very clear desires and expectations. Whether we are discussing the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson, they are not shy about their opinions and the issues they hold dear. I happen to have selected two names on the GOP side, however they exist on both sides of the political spectrum . Theoretically the PACs created by these individuals are expected to operate independently of the candidate’s campaign. In fact, any coordination is against the law. Yet amazingly, they seem to operate within the same ideological framework and focus on the same issues. Who do you think has greater influence in the electoral process, you or the Koch brothers? Does the “one man, one vote” principle still appear to be functioning? Is our electoral process still as democratic as we would like to believe?
There can be no doubt that the infusion of “big” money into the electoral process has corrupted it and reduced the value of your vote. While we have seen instances in which every last vote cast impacted on a specific election, your vote has less value if the vote at the cash box has greater influence on our nation’s policies than your vote at the ballot box. There have been some murmurs about the corrupting influence of money in our electoral process. There has been some discussion about a desire to reverse the Citizens United decision. While it is too late to change things for 2016, there is time to impact on the electoral landscape for the 2018 election. It is time to increase the volume of those murmurs and turn the discussions into constructive action.