Suppress the Vote!By JIM ARKEDIS and LINDSAY MARK LEWIS
The grip of the super PAC on the Republican primary season has been well-documented. They are wrecking balls operating outside the candidates’ direct control, fueled by massive influxes of cash from a handful of wealthy patrons. The millions spent by the pro-Santorum Red, White and Blue Fund and the pro-Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future, have prolonged their respective candidates’ rivalry with the front-runner, Mitt Romney, whose own Restore Our Future has bludgeoned the competition from Iowa to Florida to Michigan.
And that’s just the start. In the general election, super PACs will evolve into full-blown shadow campaigns. This transition is already underway, with the super PACs supporting Republican candidates beginning to take on voter persuasion operations — like sending direct mail and making phone calls — that have traditionally been reserved for a campaign operation or party committee.
The phenomenon won’t be isolated on the right. President Obama recently embraced the outside groups that he had rejected, saying that he would not unilaterally disarm. The president has dispatched one of his most trusted aides to run Priorities USA, the White House’s super PAC of choice.
There is one pointed difference in the behavior we can expect from the two sides in the general election. Whereas liberal groups have generally been interested in increasing voter turnout, conservatives have tended to want to suppress it.
In the general election, right wing groups may try to use super PACs to affect the vote in this fall’s election. And if we fail to recognize super PACs’ enormous potential to suppress voting before it happens — and don’t regulate them appropriately — millions of Americans could be disenfranchised on Nov. 6, 2012.
Super PACs are the perfect vehicle for voter suppression, thanks to two crucial advantages they have over traditional campaigns. First, they operate in a legal black hole of opaque disclosure requirements that allows them to disguise their activities. Second, a candidate’s campaign is shielded from a super PACs’ duplicitous actions by a legal firewall that prevents coordination between the two entities. These features afford a super PAC plausible deniability: they can suppress the vote while claiming to have done something else, and the candidate can easily disavow a super PAC’s actions.
Check out Restore Our Future’s filings with the Federal Election Commission, and it’s easy to see how vague terms could mask reality. While a super PAC must fill out a form for every expenditure, each can be classified as “voter communication,” “media production,” or “direct mail.”
The devil is in what those terms might be hiding. “Voter communication” could actually be a robocall that targets African Americans, reassuring them that Obama has the election in the bag. A “direct mail” piece sent to senior citizens’ homes might encourage them to vote on Wednesday, Nov. 7, just 24 hours too late.
This isn’t just something we dreamed up. For decades conservative groups have proven that voter suppression is cheap and effective: It cost just a few thousand dollars for Allen Raymond, a Republican operative, to make harrassing calls, jamming New Hampshire Democratic Party phone lines during the 2002 Congressional campaigns, for which he spent three months in prison; in 2006, the Republican National Committee paid for fliers in Virginia that told African Americans to “skip this vote;” Paul Schurick, an aide to former Republican Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich was convictedof using robocalls that told African Americans not to vote in 2010.
Should a super PAC get caught doing something like this, its legal separation from a campaign means the crime could never drag down a candidate or party. “Yes, I’m aware of the allegations against Cornering Our Future,” a candidate might explain, “but as you know, my campaign cannot coordinate its activities with a super PAC, so I consider the matter closed.”
And the candidate would be legally correct.
These are also key differences in accountability. When a candidate or national party runs an ad, sends mail or makes a phone call, those responsible for the activity are relatively easy to find and investigate. Even in that context, hundreds of irregularities take place every election cycle.
More importantly, parties and candidates have reputations to protect, and want to live on to fight another day. Not so for a super PAC. Terminating one is easy: its officers file a notice with the F.E.C., which then certifies that it has ceased operation. The super PAC’s only requirement is to maintain copies of its records for three years.
That’s why most super PACs will disappear on the morning after the votes are counted. There is little incentive to observe election laws if you can just close up shop.
The rise of the super PAC parallels a subtle but concerted effort by conservative groups to suppress the vote, which are disguised as efforts to defeat exceedingly rare voter fraud. A 2011 study by N.Y.U.’s Brennan Center found that 14 Republican-dominated states have approved new legislation requiring higher standards for voter identification. The center estimates that five million people could find it more difficult to vote this year.
There’s a close connection between these efforts and super PAC funders, too. In some 30 cases, state lawmakers received model “voter fraud” legislation from a conservative networking group called the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC has received funding from Koch Industries, which is run by the conservative siblings of the same name who have reportedly pledged $60 million to defeat President Obama this fall. Given donation restrictions to campaigns, much of that money would have to go to super PACs.
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated PressAt a news conference in Trenton in November 1993, New Jersey Governor-elect Christie Whitman defended her campaign against accusations of voter suppression.
An infamous case from the recent past serves as a cautionary tale. In 1993, Christine Todd Whitman defeated incumbent New Jersey Governor Jim Florio to become the first female Republican governor in American history. She squeaked through by one percent, overcoming a deficit of some nine points in the final week of the campaign.
But in the days following the election, long-time Republican operative and Whitman campaign manager Ed Rollins did something truly bizarre: he started bragging about his secret weapon, suppressing the (presumably Democratic) vote.
With just $500,000 in hand, Rollins — who worked for Michele Bachmann in this year’s Republican primary — was shockingly frank in a 1993 Times article about how he instructed grassroots organizers to approach ministers at African American churches, then as now centers of political gravity for black get-out-the-vote efforts. In return for sizable contributions to a minister’s favorite project, all church leaders had to do was not mention the election from the pulpit.
New Jersey and other states have a long-standing practice of handing out “walking around money,” a few bucks to cover transportation and lunch for campaign workers on election day. Rollins contacted a key few Florio get-out-the-vote workers and offered to match it, provided they just sit home and watch TV.
How many votes did Rollins suppress? We’ll never truly know of course, but Florio lost the election by just 26,000, a pittance in an election in which almost 2.5 million votes were cast. That’s 1.05 percent.
The Whitman campaign immediately went on the defensive, issuing denials and trying to insulate the candidate from Rollins’s activities. Michael Chertoff, then the U.S. attorney for the district of New Jersey and later George W. Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security, launched an investigationinto Whitman’s campaign that eventually cleared her, just days before her inauguration.
Chertoff did acknowledge that some money had been paid to Democrats, but cast the issue as one of free speech, pointing out that members of a political party shouldn’t be required to support only its candidates.
More telling is Chertoff’s opinion of the spirit of Rollins’ wrongdoing. Chertoff cautioned aspiring political consultants who “play tricks and cut corners” that “that’s a very sad outcome, and if they take that message to heart they will eventually get in trouble.”
Operating under the opaque protection of a super PAC’s plausible deniability, today’s political consultants probably won’t get in trouble, no matter what they do. As long as super PACs remain legal, they should be governed, at a minimum, by strict disclosure rules that allow the F.E.C. to follow the outflow from their accounts, not just the inflow. The dangers of super PACs and voter suppression need to be addressed today, not when its beneficiaries are running the government.
- Romney and allies attack Santorum on all fronts (politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com)
- McCain Rips Super PACs (thedailybeast.com)
- Pro-Santorum super-PAC increases spending in Wisconsin (thehill.com)
- Romney super PAC attacks Santorum over the economy (politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com)
- U.S. Chamber Of Commerce: ‘We’re The Old School Super PAC’ (thinkprogress.org)
- Romney Super PAC Takes Money From Government Contractors, Flouting Ban (thinkprogress.org)
- Pro-Romney super PAC increases ad buys (politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com)
- Mitt Super PAC Keys on Unemployment in WI (thepage.time.com)
- Campaign Spending Shows Political Ties, Self-Dealing (propublica.org)