What you should know about our election system
By Perry Willis
Our election process is rigged, and you are being disenfranchised. You need to understand how this is being done and what you can do about it. The first thing you need to know is that . . .
Politicians have little need for vote fraud because they control the election laws.
If voters have no effective way to influence elections, then the elections are effectively rigged, and the voters are disenfranchised. Politicians can rig elections in two ways:
- They can engage in vote fraud, and risk scandal and imprisonment, or . . .
- They can pass election laws that give themselves an unassailable legal advantage.
Election rigging through vote fraud may occur from time to time, but election rigging through law making is safer, more effective, and sadly, far more prevalent.
Our elected office holders have made it effectively illegal for challengers, independent candidates, and third parties to compete with them. The list of their unconstitutional, anti-democratic, and monopolistic transgressions against the American voter is lengthy and highly disturbing.
What follows is a partial list of the many ways in which lawmakers have acted to protect themselves from competition, at your expense.
Two sets of ballot access laws
Incumbent politicians have passed two sets of ballot access laws, easy laws for themselves, and hard laws for independent and third party challengers. The effect of these laws is to limit your choices, as well as the amount of competition incumbents face on Election Day.
Challengers must spend a large portion of every dollar they raise petitioning to get on the ballot. Very little is then left over for communicating with voters. This means that you are denied access to fresh ideas, and incumbents are free to continue with politics as usual, safe from effective competition.
But this problem is made even worse by the fact that incumbents have made it practically illegal for their competitors to raise money, while conferring huge fundraising advantages on themselves.
A protection racket
It's not surprising that incumbents hardly ever lose. By violating constitutional restrictions on the size and scope of government they are able to dispense favors and impose punishments like Mafia Godfathers running a protection racket.
Incumbent politicians use their ability to bestow government handouts and pass harmful legislation to subtly coerce people into financing their campaigns.
As a result, many businesses, wealthy individuals, and special interests contribute preferentially to incumbents, even if they prefer a challenger's stands on the issues. For many contributors with vested interests it is vitally important to not offend the incumbent office holder lest government favors be denied, or harmful legislation passed.
Worse still, even though most of the money goes to incumbents, many contributors "hedge their bets" by giving to both major parties, even though these parties are supposed to represent polar opposites. As a result, political contributions have become a form of insurance, instead of an expression of deeply held convictions.
By contrast, challengers have no ability (and often no desire) to use government power to reward friends and punish enemies. As a result, they have less ability to raise money.
The law requires the names and addresses of campaign contributors to be reported to the government. This is somewhat akin to providing accused criminals with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the members of their jury so they can send people around to intimidate them, or make threatening phone calls.
In the case of government mandated campaign finance reports the process is far subtler but just as intimidating. Incumbents have access to these reports and can use them to punish contributors who support their opponents. Contributors know this potential exists and this awareness has a chilling effect on donations to challengers, independents, and third-party candidates.
Politicians claim these reports are vital because voters need to know who is funding whom, but the truth is that few voters ever look at these reports (have you ever looked at one?), and the media does so only selectively. Instead, the most likely use of this information is by the politicians themselves.
More importantly, the supposed aim of the reports could be entirely met through voluntary disclosure (coupled, perhaps, with independent audits, although it must be noted that the reports filed with government are not audited). In the business world millions of dollars are invested everyday on the basis of this kind of information, so it is more than adequate for political contributions.
If voters really care about disclosure they can vote against the candidates who don't provide public reports. And contributors who don't want their names made public would also be free to not contribute to the candidates who do report. It really is that simple. Freedom works. But voluntary reporting would not serve the interests of the incumbents and ruling parties, because then challengers could raise more money. Their potential contributors would no longer have any reason to fear reprisals from incumbent office holders.
But the Mafia-like approach of the ruling parties doesn't end here. They even reach into your pockets and force you to fund candidates that you may bitterly oppose.
A fraudulent campaign funding system
Perhaps you've heard stories about organized crime raiding union pension funds to finance their operations. Well, the ruling parties do the same thing with the public treasury, under cover of law.
The politicians have led people to believe that those taxpayers who check-off a box on their tax forms voluntarily donate the money the major parties receive. This is untrue.
Taxpayers do not voluntarily give more money to the government to fund campaigns, instead the check-off box on the tax form simply allocates money from the U.S. Treasury for that purpose.
This is an unconstitutional transfer of the appropriations power of Congress to the small minority of taxpayers who check the box.
Worse still, if the number of people who check the box declines, as it has steadily since the program was created, Congress simply raises the amount of money transferred by each individual check-off until it matches the amount of funding they think is needed. There is nothing voluntary about this program.
In essence, the ruling parties have voted themselves access to government money for their own purposes, and hidden the theft behind a fraudulent cloak of voluntary taxpayer participation. But the extent of their legalized criminality doesn't end here.
Incumbents have used their law making abilities to give themselves and their parties hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayers' money to run their conventions and presidential campaigns. This means your tax money is used to support candidates that you oppose.
Worse still, equivalent sums are not made available to third parties, and some third parties refuse, as a matter of principle, to take what little taxpayers' money is available to them. They believe it is unethical to force taxpayers who may oppose their campaigns to fund them.
The third parties that believe the campaign funding system is unethical are placed in a terrible bind. If they accept the government money they look and feel like hypocrites. But if they don't accept it they are placed at an even greater competitive disadvantage. While the major parties receive tens of millions of dollars in taxpayers' money for free, the principled third parties must spend a good third of their income on fundraising. Add these fundraising costs to the expense of ballot access petitioning and little remains for campaign outreach. This means that major party presidential candidates are effectively protected from third party competition, and voters are denied access to fresh ideas and new choices.
Death by red tape
A large portion of the money challengers have left over after they've paid their ballot access and fundraising costs is consumed complying with the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). These costs are incidental to the incumbents and ruling parties, but burdensome to many challengers and all third parties.
The FECA effectively strangles challengers in red tape. Among other things . . .
- Candidates must ensure they do not take contributions from corporations or foreigners, forcing them to inquire if a contributing business is incorporated, and if an individual with a non-generic name is an American citizen. This last question can be highly insulting to some. And asking these questions and recording the answers takes time and money, and has a chilling effect on contributions.
- Any candidate raising or spending more than $5,000 is required to comply with complex regulations and file extensive reports with the government. This burden causes many third party and independent candidates to raise less than $5,000 in order to avoid the government imposed complications. This means that independent and third party candidates accomplish less to spread their ideas than they otherwise could in the absence of these burdens.
- The names and addresses of anyone who contributes more than $200 must be reported to the government. Many donors who could give more than $200 give less in order to avoid having their name appear in a government report. Contributors to the ruling parties often want their names to be seen, as this can be beneficial to their dealings with lawmakers and regulators. But potential contributors to challengers, independents, and third party candidates may view it as a liability.
- Candidates are also required to ask each contributor for the name of their employer as well as their occupation, and to report this information to the government. These questions also have a chilling effect on the desire to contribute.
These regulations, and others, are so intimidating, time consuming and expensive to comply with that many potential challengers who would make good elected representatives quickly abandon their plans to run for office.
The regulations are especially burdensome for third parties that must recruit candidates from the ranks of hardworking taxpayers. The average citizen doesn't have time to earn a living, and comply with bureaucratic regulations, and run for office, all at the same time.
Thus, the would-be citizen representative is driven from the field, and only millionaires, celebrities, and special interest candidates are allowed to serve.
But these bureaucratic barriers are actually the least of the problem. The most devastating harm to voters and challengers is the part of the law that limits contributions. These limits, more than anything else, are what place incumbents, the major parties, and the established corporate media, in complete charge of the political process, leaving challengers and voters powerless.
The media can do what you cannot
The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the right of the corporate news media to provide unlimited coverage to candidates of their own choosing. This is as it should be.
But if you, as an individual, support a candidate the media does not cover, your First Amendment right to buy compensating publicity for that candidate is severely limited by law (through contribution limits and other obstacles that will be described below). And this is not as it should be.
The established corporate media have an unrestricted right to free speech, but you do not.
Your freedoms of speech and association are severely limited
The law only allows you to give $1,000 per election to the candidate of your choice, not nearly enough to counteract the publicity the corporate media gives to the candidates it chooses, or the legal advantages the ruling parties have conferred on themselves. And it would take 100,000 contributions of $1,000 to equal the money the major parties take from the taxpayers for their campaigns and conventions each election cycle.
If you join together with others to raise money to support the candidates you favor you become a Political Action Committee (PAC), and then the law only allows you to contribute $5,000 per year to the candidate of your choice, which again, is not nearly enough to counteract the influence of the news media and other legal advantages the incumbents and ruling parties have given themselves. It would take 20,000 contributions of $5,000 to equal what the major parties take from the taxpayers for their campaigns and conventions - but there are only 3,706 PACs registered with the Federal Election Commission.
You can give a legal limit of $20,000 per year to party committees to support federal candidates, but it is illegal for you to direct the party to spend that money on a particular candidate or in a particular way. And it would take 5,000 contributions of $20,000 to equal what the major parties take from the taxpayers for their campaigns and conventions.
So called soft money contributions to party committees can be made in unlimited amounts, but they cannot be used to promote or oppose candidates for federal office, and many wealthy people will decline to contribute to challengers and third parties so as to avoid becoming the target of the incumbents and the ruling parties.
The law does permit you to make unlimited personal expenditures on behalf of or in opposition to federal candidates, but only if you do not have any communications about your expenditures with the candidates you support. You cannot tell them what you are doing, ask their advice, or coordinate your message with their message in any way. You may lack expertise in public relations, ad production, or ad buys, but that doesn't matter as far as the law is concerned. You must still communicate your support for your candidate without seeking the candidate's assistance. Or, you can hire consultants to do it for you, even though there may be an absence of people with the political experience required to do a good job at a price you can afford. But you must make sure any consultant you hire has never worked for the candidate you support, or you could be charged with collusion.
If you run afoul of any of these complex regulations you will not be tried by a jury of your peers, but by a bi-partisan governmental board called the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The FEC is composed of exactly three Democrats and three Republicans. There is no odd-numbered member to break tie votes, and no third parties or independents are represented on the Commission.
In addition, the president is the official who is constitutionally charged with making appointments to the Commission, while the Senate is charged with approving or rejecting those appointments after the fact. But this isn't how it works in the case of the FEC. Instead, major party leaders get together and agree on whom the president should appoint. The president then does as the party leaders have asked. This procedure violates the constitutional separation of powers.
The FEC exists, in effect, to serve the interests of the ruling parties, to the detriment of challengers and voters. But the FEC is not the only government sanctioned body that serves this purpose. The so-called Commission for Presidential debates serves the same purpose.
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is structured in the same duopolitistic way as the Federal Election Commission. It is run entirely by leaders from the major parties for the exclusive benefit of those parties.
The CPD routinely ignores the expressed desire of the voters to have independents and third parties included in its debates, and establishes criteria designed to exclude competitors.
In addition, the CPD has been granted exemptions to contribution limits and tax breaks that are not available to any other group desiring to host presidential debates. The CPD is the cover for a governmental grant of preferred status to the major parties at the expense of challengers and voters.
Who can compete?
Who can compete with these monopolistic forces? Only billionaires and celebrities are permitted to use their resources to match the self-conferred advantages of the major parties, and then only if they run for office themselves. They are not allowed to provide financial aid to other candidates beyond the low limits set by law. Grassroots, citizens' campaigns are completely prohibited from marshalling the resources they would need to compete effectively with the ruling parties.
America's elections are rigged. Our ruling parties have passed so many laws to protect themselves from competition that America now looks more like a banana republic than the nation of free and open elections it once was.
The deck is so stacked against non-incumbents and third parties that if politics really was a game, as the media seems to think it is, the Las Vegas Gaming Commission would be called in to investigate.
Or, if the major parties were made subject to the federal anti-trust laws the Justice Department would prosecute them for monopolistic practices.
One could also imagine foreign nations sending observers to monitor our elections for fairness, as our own hypocritical rulers do to so many other countries. These foreign observers would find that American elections are among the least fair and open of any in the world.
What can you do?
The situation is grave, but not hopeless. There are several things you can do to restore the power of your vote.
This archival web page was frozen in its current form for historical record in January, 2004, and is provided courtesy of the Downsize DC Foundation
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READ ON: For a thorough but highly readable FAQ on campaign finance, please read the original RealCampaignReform.org article, "Liberty for citizens or only for politicians?"
This archival web page was frozen in its current form for historical record in January, 2004, and is provided courtesy of the Downsize DC Foundation