Rebuttal to: "The U.S. Has Fair Elections!"

Photo: Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons


In this post, I'm going to address an idea that's often taken for granted in mainstream political discourse: That the United States has fair and free elections. I'll begin by providing a specific example of this viewpoint being espoused. The day after the presidential election, Conan O'Brien had the following things to say on his show


"The optimist in me chooses today to be happy that we have fair and free elections at all. I think it's an amazing thing. I really do. I mean that from my heart. (*audience applauds*) In the last couple of years, I've traveled to a bunch of countries—Cuba, Armenia, the Middle East—where the people would give anything—anything—to have our system. In America, we get to pick who's going to ruin our country!"


Let me start by acknowledging the things he was right about.

He is correct that our elections are free, in the sense that we have the ability to vote for whoever we choose without fear of being murdered by government-sponsored death squads or being imprisoned or punished legally in some way. Nobody is going to force us to vote for somebody; that decision freely lies with us.

He's also correct that there have been historical examples of countries using an electoral process inferior to ours, sometimes because the vote counts have been doctored in favor of one candidate, other times because political parties at odds with the ruling class have been suppressed or outright destroyed, with their leaders and members subjected to kidnappings, torture, and assassinations.

But of course, just because elections in other nations have been flawed in these ways doesn't mean that our electoral process is perfect. By analogy, the fact that getting set on fire would be excrutiatingly painful doesn't automatically make getting punched in the face a pleasurable experience. Yes, as Conan pointed out, our electoral process would certainly be a step up from some of the alternatives, but our system is not without its flaws. Specifically, I think it's inaccurate to describe the United States elections as "fair." They are anything but fair, for a number of different reasons.

First and foremost, there's the influence of big money in politics. In theory, this influence could be sharply curtailed by implementing restrictions on who can donate and how much they're allowed to donate to political campaigns. As Wikipedia writes


"Federal law restricts how much individuals and organizations may contribute to political campaigns, political parties, and other FEC-regulated organizations. Corporations and unions are barred from donating money directly to candidates or national party committees" 


In practice, however, the mega-rich have found ways to circumvent these campaign restrictions. Super PACs are one such example. To again quote Wikipedia


"The 2010 election marked the rise of a new political committee, dubbed the 'super PAC'. They are officially known as 'independent-expenditure only committees', because they may not make contributions to candidate campaigns or parties, but rather must do any political spending independently of the campaigns. Unlike other PACs, there is no legal limit to the funds they can raise from individuals, corporations, unions and other groups, provided they are operated correctly. As of August 23, 2012, 797 super PACS had raised upwards of $349 million, with 60% of that money coming from just 100 donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Super PACs were made possible by two judicial decisions. First, in January 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that government may not prohibit unions and corporations from making independent expenditure for political purposes. Two months later, in v. FEC, the Federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that contributions to groups that only make independent expenditures could not be limited in the size and source of contributions to the group. Independent expenditures continue to grow with $17 million spent in 2002 on congressional elections, $52 million in 2006, and $290 million in 2010."


Another loophole in our campaign finance laws has been taken advantage of by Hillary Clinton: "speaking fees." The way this works is quite simple: The politician gives a speech to some organization, and in return, they're given a very large check for their services. Hillary Clinton, for example, has been paid speaking fees by corporations such as General Electric, Morgan Stanley, The Goldman Sachs Group, Verizon Communications, and Bank of America. In these cases, Hillary was given about $225,000 per speech.

Bernie Sanders offered the following thoughts on these paid speeches: 


"Now, what I have said is that if you're gonna give a speech and get paid 225,000 bucks, it must be an extraordinarily brilliant speech, right? It must be a speech that will address and resolve all of the world's conflicts, it must be a speech written in Shakespearean prose, and for that kind of money, it must be a speech of such great importance that she should share it with the rest of the world."


When corporations provide politicians and their campaigns with millions of dollars—either directly, in the case of speaking fees, or indirectly, via Super PACs—it seems reasonable to assume that they expect some return on investment. They're expecting these politicians to either maintain the status quo that allows them to thrive, or to implement changes that benefit them in some way, generally speaking by further boosting their profit-generation. It would be very difficult to argue that corporations would fund the campaigns of politicians who would crack down on them by, for example, closing loopholes and making them pay their fair share in taxes. For this reason, I find it especially ridiculous when politicians who are utterly drowning in an ocean of corporate money get up on stage and talk about how they're going to crack down on the very organizations who are bankrolling them.

Of course, it's not just corporations who influence our elections. Extremely wealthy individuals can also have a large impact. But regardless of whether it's an organization or just some rich fat-cat bankrolling Super PACs, it's clear that such massive financial expenditures will allow them to influence elections to a much greater extent than the average American who can only donate comparably minuscule amounts to a politician's campaign.

I'd like to introduce a concept called "electoral purchasing power." Purchasing power is defined as "the financial ability to buy products and services," whereas I define electoral purchasing power as "the financial ability to fund political campaigns and influence elections." Average Americans have much less electoral purchasing power than do profit-bloated corporations and immensely wealthy billionaires like George Soros or the Koch brothers. So long as big money is allowed in politics, disparities in capital will guarantee disparities in political influence.

That Wikipedia quote from earlier is worth taking a closer look at: 


"As of August 23, 2012, 797 super PACS had raised upwards of $349 million, with 60% of that money coming from just 100 donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics."


Now, I'd be willing to bet that if we took a random sample of 100 people who were reading this post and asked them pool together whatever spare money they have to use for political contributions, we would not come up with a figure in excess of $200 million. Maybe we'd happen to get lucky and some billionaire like Bill Gates is watching. But I wouldn't count on it. (Now if some extremely rich person does happen to be watching, consider making a very generous donation to my Patreon page. Call it a "speaking fee", if you like.)

The point is, ordinary citizens simply do not have anywhere near the same capacity to influence governmental elections as people like the billionaire Koch brothers do. So how can our elections be described as "fair" when such tremendous disparities exist?

Our elections are also unfair because third-party or independent candidates are systematically excluded from the public spotlight. This is done in a few different ways. The mainstream media plays a key role, offering very little coverage of candidates that don't fit into the traditional Democratic or Republican mold. The Media Research Center has studied this topic very closely and provides the following data:


If candidates receive next to no mainstream media coverage, obviously people who depend upon this media for their political news aren't going to be aware of them. They're not going to know much about their political platform, and even if they do hear about these candidates in one way or another, the very fact that they receive so little coverage might itself make them appear as a non-viable option to the New York Times reader or the cable news viewer. Furthermore, this lack of third-party coverage ensures that their poll numbers will stay low, which deters a lot of people from voting for them even if they agree with them politically. The mainstream media, through their coverage, basically portrays a world in which the American electorate has only two options: to vote for the Republican nominee or the Democratic nominee. 

Third-party candidates are also effectively excluded from the presidential debates. They're obviously not involved in the Republican and Democratic debates during the primaries, because they're not members of those parties. But they're also generally not involved in the main presidential debates which start around September. This is because of the rules established by the Commission on Presidential Debates. To be included in these debates, candidates must be polling at 15% or above nationally sometime around Labor Day, which is on September 5th. But how are these candidates expected to poll above 15% nationally before the presidential debates start if they're not included in any publicized debates prior to September 5th, and if they receive next to no media coverage? Our media and debate system operates in such a way that third-party candidates are effectively blocked out and shielded from the American people.

How can it be argued that US elections are fair if any candidate who is not a Democrat or Republican is systematically excluded from media coverage and presidential debates? A fair system would have a relatively equal amount of coverage provided to all of our different options, with all of these candidates included in the presidential debates, as well. A fair system would simply present our options to us and allow us to make up our own minds about who to elect. What our system actually does is only provide a few, limited options to choose from, offering extremely biased coverage in the process. A good example of this bias is the media reaction to the Democratic debates. Viewers overwhelmingly believed that Bernie Sanders won the debate; as far as the media was concerned, however, Hillary Clinton stood victorious.

So just to review, contrary to popular dogma, elections in the United States are actually not fair. This is because of the massive influence wealthy individuals and corporations have over the political process, giving them a much louder voice than any ordinary American. Our elections are also unfair because biased mainstream media coverage, as well as the rules which dictate inclusion in the presidential debates, almost guarantees that third-party or independent candidates will be given very little time in the public spotlight, thus effectively restricting the political options of many Americans who rely on the media for up-to-date political information.

So what can we do to fix these problems and level the playing field? For starters, we need to close loopholes that allow corporations and the mega-rich to corrupt politicians and fund their campaigns. In other words, we need to reduce the electoral purchasing power of the wealthiest Americans. We also need to rely less on the mainstream media for political coverage, and we should instead take the time to do our own research and decide for ourselves which presidential candidates deserve our support.  And, lastly, we need to change the rules which are in place and open up the debates to third-party and independent candidates so that the American electorate is presented with a wider variety of political options. Doing these things would be a huge step in the right direction.