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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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Creating barriers to voting, demonizing communities of color, attacking voting rights laws and their defenders, unleashing billionaires who financed candidates like an extreme sport, and hiding corporate donors behind opaque front groups—these were the chapters in the Republican Party’s electoral playbook in the 2012 election cycle.

While Democrats copied but did not quite match the GOP on the campaign finance abuse side of this depressing ledger, the 2012 campaign cycle arguably was the worst for democracy issues in years. And the GOP’s prospects for changing course are dim.

The nation’s most comprehensive 2012 Election Day survey of voter attitudes found that upwards of one-fifth of Republicans believed the GOP’s voter fraud propagandists. That cadre claimed that non-citizens voting, people impersonating others, voting more than once, and tampering with ballots and results occurred in their counties.

Meanwhile, top GOP officials in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are hoping to change the way their states allocate Electoral College votes to dilute future Democratic victories.

To be fair, the Democrats are no angels when it comes to using the same campaign finance tactics as the GOP—although the GOP was first to pioneer and exploit 2012’s newest and biggest loopholes. But on voting rights, the GOP clearly is a party that does not want everyone to vote, whereas Democrats believe in expanding the franchise.

1. Voting Barriers     

The bad news was that between January 2011 and October 2012, 19 states (all but one with GOP majorities) adopted 25 new laws and two executive actions that created barriers at varying stages of the voting process, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. These new laws weren’t just newly restrictive voter ID requirements, but also curbs on registration drives and early voting options.

The good news was liberal voting rights groups and the U.S. Department of Justice (after doing little in 2011) reversed or weakened new laws in 14 states, according to Brennan’s count. But in some of the most contested fights, such as Pennsylvania’s new photo ID law, the Court only postponed the law from taking effect until after 2012.

2. Voter Intimidation

The GOP’s propoganda machine went into overdrive in 2012, with a handful of Tea Party governors and secretaries of state—led by Florida Gov. Rick Scott—falsely claiming that hundreds of thousands of non-citizens were on voter rolls. Scott’s claims of 180,000-plus illegals led to hundreds of legal voters, including World War II vets, being incorrectly purged. He retracted that figure, but the initial publicity did its dirty work: intimidating new voters from communities of color, according to Florida election officials like Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho. And as Election Day neared, Republican activists paid for billboards in several swing state cities with big minority populations that cited penalties for illegal voting, another voter suppression tactic.   

The good news was that in Florida, election supervisors from both parties rebelled against Scott’s false claims. But rightwing media trumpeted these and other fabrications. On Election Day, a nationwide survey by CalTech/MIT of 10,200 voters found that 35 percent of Republicans believed non-citizen voting was a problem in their county. (This is the nation’s largest survey of voter attitudes and experiences.)

Twenty-two percent of Republicans said there was voting by people pretending to be someone else in their county, CalTech/MIT found. The same number said there was voting by people more than once; 17 percent said people tampered with ballots; and another 16 percent said election officials tampered with the count. In contrast, only 9 percent or less of Democrats believed these issues were real problems.

Taken together, roughly one-third of the 2012 electorate believe some version of GOP-defined voter fraud was widespead—even though innumerable academic studies have shown that these kinds of infractions are singular events, on par with getting hit by lightning. (In fact, 2012’s most notable examples of election fraud were by Republicans, such as the Indiana secretary of state’s resignation after falsified candidate filing papers surfaced, or GOP consultant Nathan Sproul was caught dumping voter registration forms submitted by Democrats, or Ohio counties barring the new GOP voter vigilante group True the Vote from polling places after lying about members’ credentials.)    

There is plenty of evidence that the GOP’s accusations and tactics—on top of Obama being a mixed-race candidate—backfired and increased minority turnout. On Friday, Pew Research Center reported that blacks voted at a higher rate than whites in 2012, a first. But when partisan beliefs carry more weight than facts, it is all but impossible to reach consensus solutions in the political world. That takes us to the next big trend that will continue to unfold in 2013—the GOP’s assault on federal voting rights laws.

3. Rolling Back Federal Power

The goal of this page in the GOP playbook is to weaken the federal government’s power to regulate voting law changes in states and counties that have past histories of racial discrimination. Led by Republicans such as Texas’ attorney general, the GOP is seeking to overturn the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the DOJ used this year to reject voting laws in Texas, South Carolina, Florida and other states. The DOJ also used the VRA to reject Texas’ post-2012 Census redistricting, which ended up electing more Latino (Democrats) to the U.S. House after federal courts intervened.

These legal challenges are heading to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Chief Justice John Roberts has said that these enforcement sections of the Voting Rights Act are outdated. Arizona has another legal challenge to DOJ oversight that will be heard by the Supreme Court in 2013, over requiring new voters to provide citizenship documents when registering to vote. (Most states allow people to sign an oath.) 

To say that the GOP is hypocritical on race and voting is an understatement. In these anti-VRA lawsuits, GOP attorneys general are arguing that America has outgrown affirmative action to ensure voting rights. On the other hand, GOP officials such as Florida’s Scott and many partisan secretaries of state (Colorado, Michigan, Kansas and New Mexico) demonize communities of color with irresponsible and unproven allegations of illegal voting. And rightwing public intellectuals keep writing articles that personally attack current and former DOJ Voting Section attorneys, to try to discredit their efforts.

2012’s Real Problems

It’s worth noting what the CalTech/MIT survey found were the real problems faced by voters in 2012—to offer a sense of perspective.

Of the 128.6 million voters this fall, 13 percent (or 16.7 million) said they waited in line longer than 30 minutes. (Early voting lines were longer than Election Day because there were fewer polling places.) African Americans and Latinos faced longer waiting times than whites, sometimes twice as long or more, it found in its preliminary analysis. The longest waits were in Florida (averaging 45 minutes); the District of Columbia (35 minutes); Maryland (32 minutes); Virginia (28 minutes); and South Carolina (27 minutes).

Three other big-picture statistics are worth remembering. Three percent of voters, or 3.85 million people, reported a problem with voter registration records. In contrast, 2 percent or 2.57 million reported a voting equipment problem. Importantly, one-third of voters didn’t believe that all the votes cast would be counted.

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).