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Leveling the Playing Field: Fair Voting as Democratic Practice

Thank you to my esteemed colleagues for inviting me here today. Although American democracy is failing, I am proud of our effort to unite in contemplating its restoration to full health. The current political structure, particularly in elections, empowers the wealthy and disproportionately excludes voters of color. Big business and the wealthy dominate political attention; […]

Thank you to my esteemed colleagues for inviting me here today. Although American democracy is failing, I am proud of our effort to unite in contemplating its restoration to full health. The current political structure, particularly in elections, empowers the wealthy and disproportionately excludes voters of color. Big business and the wealthy dominate political attention; conversely, the poorest and most disadvantaged citizens are largely disenfranchised. These two issues, outwardly unrelated, are inextricably tied; they both facilitate an undemocratic electoral system where powerful voices are heard and the powerless are silenced. Democracy must be representative, therefore, the systemic empowerment of the wealthy while ignoring the most disadvantaged among us is unrepresentative and undemocratic. To right this injustice, a re-imagination of how campaigns are financed and the restoration of the prisoner’s civic right to vote is required.

American democracy is designed to be representative, regardless of inequalities in financial resources. Today, the United States theoretically has universal suffrage, which is designed to be a “public institution for influencing the conduct of government officials within which everyone has the same power” (Hudson 190). By allocating one vote to every person, private inequalities in political resources are balanced out. Therefore, any advantage given or vote taken away is incongruous with the principles and objective of representative democracy.

The United States violates this promise in allowing the wealthy to buy political power through a campaign structure that requires large sums of money to win. Even if ‘one person, one vote’ was fulfilled on the surface (which it is not, due to the Electoral College), money would still erase this basic democratic value. Campaigns require enormous sums of money to support their infrastructure, as exemplified by the 1.49 billion dollars that Donald Trump had spent on his re-election campaign, as of October 22, 2020 (McMinn). Although some politicians, like Mike Bloomberg, can largely rely on their personal fortunes to fund their campaigns, most must rely on wealthy donors. Furthermore, raising funds drives media attention because outlets “decide which candidates to cover largely on the basis of how much money they have raised” (Hudson 197).  Since these wealthy individuals or groups essentially ensure the legitimacy of their candidacy, few elected officials “dare to take positions or advocate policies that might anger campaign contributors, no matter how popular those policies might be among ordinary voters” (Hudson 196). By creating a distinction between “campaign contributors” and “ordinary voters”, Hudson highlights that the average voter does not get the same kind of access that money buys. Not only does money buy the ear of elected politicians, it buys elections. Data from 2004 demonstrates that Congressional candidates who spent the most won in 96 percent of races; in 2016, “House winners… spent over four times more than the losers” (Hudson 198). The strength of this correlation is partially due to incumbent advantages; however, money contributes to such advantages. In the Senate races from 2019-2020, the average amount of money raised for an incumbent was $23,776,007 compared to the challenger’s $5,913,320 (“Incumbent Advantage”). Money legitimizes one’s initial candidacy, wins the first election, and ensures that they will remain victorious successively. It is no wonder that politicians cater to the interests of the wealthy, as their donations all but guarantee a triumph. The influence of the rich and therefore the powerful breaks the fundamental premise of American democracy that the vote empowers all people equally.

The current flawed and blatantly undemocratic system ensures that some voices are louder than others and silences many from having a say. A vote is a symbol of representative democracy; to disenfranchise prisoners, even for a short time, violates one’s rights as an American citizen. A vote expresses one’s opinion, and therefore should be a form of protected speech under the First Amendment (Tibbot). Prisoners, without the right to vote, become citizens that are subject to American laws “but without a voice in the way that they’re governed – not unlike taxation without representation” (Brettschneider). By comparing the disenfranchisement of prisoners to taxation without representation, Brettschneider ties today’s injustice back to injustice in the founding era, which effectively motivated the creation of American democracy. Although the founding generation did not believe in universal suffrage, Americans still carry their ideals and must re-interpret them in a changing world. Prisoners are also often counted in the population of the district of their prison, which means that their lives are counted in exchange for political power without being able to wield it (Brettschneider). As Brettschneider states, “[s]uch a policy resembles the Constitution’s notorious three-fifths clause, which denied slaves the right to vote but counted them in the Census for the purposes of amassing more pro-slavery representatives.” The juxtaposition of these two problematic policies carries a racial undertone, as Black people are incarcerated five times more often than white people (Nellis). Importantly, the two states that do not disenfranchise prisoners–Maine and Vermont–are both more than 95% white, because as Emily Tredeau states, “White voters will give pause before they disenfranchise other white people,” (Gross). The socioeconomic status of incarcerated people pre-imprisonment is also indicative of a flawed justice system. In 2014, prisoners had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to incarceration, which is “41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages” (Kopf, Rabuy). The demographics of imprisonment are important because they highlight not only the flaws of the criminal justice system, but that the disenfranchisement of prisoners disproportionately impacts people of color and the poor. Taking away one’s voting rights not only violates one’s rights as a citizen, but ensures the most disadvantaged in America remain voiceless.

The inequalities in who has access in politics is at odds with a representative democracy, and re-imagining the campaign finance system is one way to undercut the influence that the wealthy have in elections. With the understanding that money is a mode of political power – just like a vote – we must ensure that such access to influence is better designed to encourage political equality. To combat inequalities in campaign finance, I propose a six-to-one publicly financed, small-donor matching funds program, as well as lowering the contribution limits on individuals and parties. Elizabeth Warren included these ideas in her campaign finance reform proposal, which is effective in involving ordinary citizens in supporting campaigns while reducing incentives to appeal to wealthy donors. Elizabeth Warren’s plan, which is similar to that of H.R. 1 in 2019, would match small-dollar donations (up to $200) six times over, which would mean that a donation as small as $20 would become $120 given to the campaign. According to H.R. 1, the money for the publicly funded program would be derived from a 2.75 percent fee on criminal and civil financial penalties with the government, which would be bookmarked for a “Freedom From Influence Fund” (Kessler). To qualify for the program, candidates must “raise at least $50,000 in small-dollar donations from at least 1,000 individuals during the qualifying period” to prove citizen support (Kessler). The proposal encourages campaigns to target small-dollar donors, as their donations would vastly increase their budget. This plan works in conjunction with a lowered limit on how much individuals can contribute to campaigns, which would effectively undercut any efforts of the wealthy to buy power. Currently, the limits on how much an individual can donate are high: $2,800 per election for individual donations to campaigns, $35,500 per year for individuals’ donations to national parties, and more than $100,000 to special party accounts (“Getting Big Money Out Of Politics”). Instead, lowering the limits to $1,000 to campaign contributions and $100,000 to political parties would ensure greater equality and access to political power (“Getting Big Money Out Of Politics”). When combined with the 6-1 donor matching system, someone who donated $200 would ultimately be more useful to a campaign than someone who donated $1,000, thus incentivizing campaigns to focus on the average American. Restructuring how campaign finance works is essential to ensuring that all people have equal access to political power. By leveling the playing field, Americans can vote knowing that their democracy is more representative of their voices and interests.

Reforming the currently undemocratic system of elections not only requires dismantling the access of the wealthy, but creating access for the poor and condemned. The disenfranchisement of prisoners in most states violates what it means to be a citizen and disproportionately erases the voices of the poor and people of color. Although many states allow for re-enfranchisement after one’s sentence has been served, any limitation on one’s voting rights is unconscionable. Each of the prisoners confined in today’s prison-industrial complex is subject to U.S. laws (having been punished underneath them) and are still counted in district populations — still entirely United States citizens. Yet, one of their fundamental rights has been taken away: the right to vote. Leaving prisoners out of the political conversation also means that a population who has never experienced prison get to dictate the rules of their confinement. The disproportionate rates at which people of color and the impoverished are imprisoned demonstrate the flaws in our criminal justice system; consequently, who better to vote on criminal justice reform than those who have experienced the injustice themselves? Most Americans have never seen the inside of a prison, so at best, they do not know to call attention to often distressing prison conditions, and at worst, they are an uneducated population voting on a reform they do not know nor care about. As Brettschneider states, “A prison and jail constituency… would make it routine for politicians to hold town halls and seek ways to improve prison and jail conditions from those who are subjected to them.” Although the formerly incarcerated could certainly provide feedback, they cannot give the most current commentary on what needs to be changed within prison walls. An essential part of this reform is also rescinding limitations on the rights to speak freely and receive information about current events, as these limitations blatantly violate prisoner’s rights as citizens. In order to vote properly, the incarcerated require access to information, as “government can be held accountable only when citizens have information about the actions of their representatives” (Brettschneider). Brettschneider’s word choice of “accountable” speaks to the dichotomy of prisoners being held responsible for their actions while being unable to hold their representatives accountable for the injustices that have been inflicted upon them. Although the criminal justice system requires much reform in order to be considered just, the re-enfranchisement of prisoners would go a long way towards reclaiming voices that have been lost to the powerful.

Some might argue that against my proposals for campaign finance reform, citing that it is unfair for public funds to be used for private campaigns. However, my plan, which is derived from Elizabeth Warren’s plan and H.R. 1 would require no expense from the taxpayer. Instead, the public funds would be derived from a 2.75 fee assessed from civil and criminal penalties with the government. Others might still argue that fines will not be enough to cover the 600 percent match rate, so taxpayer dollars would still be required to make up the gap. However, this is not the case. H.R. 1 states clearly that if there are not sufficient funds made from fines, no money can be used from other sources: “In any case in which the Commission determines that there are insufficient moneys in the Fund to make payments to participating candidates under this title, moneys shall not be made available from any other source for the purpose of making such payments” (Kessler). My reforms would include similar language to ensure that there is no infringement upon the taxpayer dollar. Opponents may also object to the lowered limits on what individuals may donate, perhaps complaining about limitations on free speech. While there is an argument to be made for the consideration of campaign dollars for free speech, freedom of speech sometimes must be limited in the event of mitigating circumstances. As it is illegal to yell “Fire!” in a movie theater when there is no fire because the stampede may cause unwarranted injury, it is also necessary to limit the amount that one can donate to campaigns in the name of political equality. Moreover, the lowered limits would not affect any one campaign’s performance because all campaigns would be under the same limitations and funds-matching program. Instead, campaigns that spend the most time talking to everyday Americans would get a boost, and so would democratic health.

Many would certainly object to prisoners being able to vote, likely arguing that those who have broken the laws of society should not be able to dictate the newest laws. This ignores the idea that citizenship entitles a person to some inalienable rights. The social contract requires that when each citizen enters into society, they acknowledge that to gain such rights, they are subject to the law. These two concepts are inextricably tied; a citizen cannot be subject to the laws without having access to all of their rights. Some might also state that re-enfranchisement should depend on one’s conviction. Judging one’s entitlement to their rights based on their punishment is flawed due to a faulty system; there are numerous cases across the country that were unfairly convicted of crimes due to racial biases or a dearth of resources to fight back. An argument for voting rights based on conviction “takes for granted that the criminal-justice system is a fair barometer for who is trustworthy and responsible and who is not” (Gross). A system that has criminalized addiction, mental illness, poverty, and race cannot be depended on for accurate judgments on who is entitled to their rights. Moreover, free people often act immorally and yet do not get their voting rights taken away. Others may say that it is enough to restore a prisoner’s rights once they’ve obtained their freedom. However, studies have shown that gaps in voting, no matter how short, have long-term effects on participation (Brettschneider). If voter participation is essential to democracy, then the restoration of voting rights to prisoners is imperative. Likewise, continual exercise of citizenship and access to information better allows convicts to transition into life after exile. A citizen’s rights, no matter their misdeed, is inviolable.

These two reforms, though addressing seemingly disparate issues, are tied together by addressing a larger problem: an undemocratic system that empowers the wealthy and silences the poor and condemned. Elections are the fundamental process of representative democracy where each citizen may vote and have their vote heard by their elected representatives. However, a system in which money buys power and those with minimal resources have no access is at odds with this fundamental idea. Currently, the United States today reflects the latter and not the former. By implementing these two proposals, Americans can vote as though they live in a representative democracy.

 

Works Cited

Brettschneider, Corey. “Why Prisoners Deserve the Right to Vote.” POLITICO Magazine, 21 June 2016, www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/06/prisoners-convicts-felons-inmates-right-to-vote-enfranchise-criminal-justice-voting-rights-213979.

“Getting Big Money Out of Politics.” Elizabeth Warren, 2019, elizabethwarren.com/plans/campaign-finance-reform.

Gross, Daniel A. “Why Shouldn’t Prisoners Be Voters?” The New Yorker, 27 February.2020, www.newyorker.com/news/the-future-of-democracy/why-shouldnt-prisoners-be-voters.

Hudson, William E. American Democracy in Peril: Eight Challenges to America’s Future. CQ Press: An Imprint of SAGE Publications, 2021.

“Incumbent Advantage.” Open Secrets,  5 Dec. 2020, www.opensecrets.org/elections-overview/incumbent-advantage.

Initiative, Prison Policy. “Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the Pre-Incarceration Incomes of the Imprisoned.” Prison Policy Initiative, 9 July 2015, www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html.

Kessler, Glenn. “Would ‘Every Small Dollar Donated’ Be Matched 6 to 1 under the House Democratic Plan?” The Washington Post, 8 March 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/03/08/would-every-small-dollar-donated-be-matched-under-house-democratic-plan/.

McMinn, Sean, et al. “Money Tracker: How Much Trump And Biden Have Raised In The 2020 Election.” NPR, 23 October 2020, www.npr.org/2020/05/20/858347477/money-tracker-how-much-trump-and-biden-have-raised-in-the-2020-election.

Nellis, Ashley. “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons.” The Sentencing Project, 10 January 2019, www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons/.

Tibbott, Kassie, and Hans A. van Spakovsky. “Should Prison Inmates Be Allowed to Vote? Pro/Con: Opinion.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 Octobeer 2019, www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/prison-felon-inmate-vote-vermont-maine-20191010.html.

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