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5 Ways GOP Tried to Subvert Democracy in 2012 -- And They'll Try Again

The 2012 election saw the biggest challenges to voting rights and campaign finance law in a generation.

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4. Billionaires Steer Presidential Race

On the campaign finance front, the biggest trend in the 2012 campaign cycle was the emergence of independent political spending by the super wealthy via so-called super PACs and secretive groups that could also spend without disclosing their donors.

It may very well be that Mitt Romney would have been a stronger candidate facing Obama were it not for the battering he received from fringe Republicans—first Newt Gingrich, then Rick Perry, then Rick Santorum—all of whom were propped up by elderly white businessmen relishing their impact in the GOP nominating contest. Texas Gov. Perry called Romney a “ vulture capitalist,” defining him long before Democratic attacks and Romney's “47 percent” gaffe surfaced, and Pennsylvania’s ex-senator Santorum said Romney was the “ worst candidate to face Obama.”

However, the trend of billionaire-funded outside groups that publicly claim no relation to candidates—even though they are run by people who worked for the men they’re helping—was just one way big money distorted 2012’s elections. The GOP nominee would have emerged months before were it not for the meddling billionaires. (In 2016, we may see the same pattern for Democrats.)

5. Secret Big Money Groups

At least with the super PACS that landed like flying saucers in the GOP desert, the public quickly learned who was behind their money drops, as they had to file Federal Election Commission reports. But these political venture capitalists were just an opening act for the far more secretive operations led by the Koch brothers and Karl Rove—and copied by Democrats.

By early summer, the airwaves in swing states were inundated with attack ads that were not sponsored by candidate campaigns or their political parties. Instead, groups with opaque names that were organized as non-profits—which would allow them to hide donor’s identities—sprang up anywhere in the country where a race was thought to significantly impact the presidential election or balance of power in Congress.

This recent profile of how these secretive groups infiltrated the Montana Senate race is illustrative of this pernicious trend. Political scientists and analysts say that $6 billion or more was spent on 2012’s federal elections, with $1 billion of that coming from the so-called dark money groups that are accountable to no one except their secret donors.

The Democrats and the Obama campaign tried to employ this same campaign finance strategy as the GOP, but did not have as many billionaires willing to write multi-million-dollar checks as the GOP. Obama and the Democrats also had many more small donors than Republicans, and enlisted their help in get-out-the-vote efforts.

But there was a big winner in 2012 that was neither candidate nor political party, and that was big money. Unless there are significant new federal campaign finance reforms or a new U.S. Supreme Court majority willing to regulate campaign finances, then the latest presidential race has established new rules and modes of campaigning—welcoming wealthy Americans and pushing everyone else to the back of the bus.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, the low-wage economy, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).