Not free, not fair: The folly of ‘finding meaning’ in the 2014 midterms

electioncosts_optAs the dust settles from the Democrats’ midterm shellacking – with the GOP last week picking up three governorships, 12 House seats and seven Senate seats, gaining control of that chamber for the first time since 2006 – pundits continue to debate the root cause of the Democrats’ failure, searching for the elusive “meaning” of this so-called “Republican wave.”

Apparently impervious to accusations of Monday morning quarterbacking, these commentators point to a variety of potential factors for the Democratic defeat, citing for example the alleged popular anger over President Obama’s response to Ebola and the Islamic State, the supposedly widespread discontent over the sluggish economic recovery, and the Democrats’ lack of a unifying message, as well as their seeming avoidance of controversial issues and the general image of timidity that the party conveyed to the electorate.

While these factors all likely played a role to one degree or another in the electoral outcome on Nov. 4, the 800-pound gorilla in the room that most analysts seem keen to ignore is the impact of several fundamental flaws in the U.S. electoral framework that render virtually meaningless any possible “lessons” that can be drawn from the Democrats’ trouncing.

For one thing, it’s worth remembering that due to the election-rigging process known as gerrymandering – i.e., the drawing of congressional district boundaries in a way to virtually guarantee preferred electoral outcomes – only a handful of congressional seats were actually in contention in the 2014 midterms. According to an analysis by CNN prior to the election, just 20 of the 435 elections for the House of Representatives were genuinely competitive, largely due to the reapportionment of congressional districts to protect “safe” seats.

Another important factor to keep in mind is the possible effect of widespread voter suppression due to felon disenfranchisement laws, newly adopted voter identification requirements, and restrictions on voter registration and early voting. As one preliminary post-election analysis by the Brennan Center’s Wendy Weiser speculated, these laws may have affected electoral outcomes in several key states including North Carolina, Kansas, Virginia, and Florida.

In the North Carolina Senate race, for example, state house speaker Thom Tillis beat Senator Kay Hagen by a margin of 1.7 percent, or about 48,000 votes. “At the same time,” Weiser points out, “North Carolina’s voters were, for the first time, voting under one of the harshest new election laws in the country — a law that Tillis helped to craft.”

The law placed new restrictions on forms of voting especially popular among African Americans, slashing early voting days, eliminating same-day registration, and prohibiting voting outside a voter’s home precinct. With these new restrictions in effect, the Election Protection hotline and other voter protection volunteers reported widespread problems across North Carolina both with voter registrations and with voters being told they were in the wrong precinct on Election Day.

Meanwhile, in the Virginia Senate race, which was supposed to be an easy win for the Democrats, Senator Mark Warner eked out a victory over Republican challenger Ed Gillespie by just 16,700 votes.

While the nail-biter of an election had many commentators scratching their heads wondering what the Democrats had done wrong in one of their so-called safe seats in which Warner had been leading by seven percentage points on the eve of the election, an issue that got less attention was the fact that voters in Virginia faced a strict new photo ID requirement for the first time this year, with the Virginia Board of Elections estimating that 198,000 “active Virginia voters” did not have acceptable ID on Election Day.

As significant as that number of disenfranchised voters may be, it pales in comparison to more than 600,000 registered voters in Texas who could not vote because they lacked acceptable forms of identification.

These included thousands of young people who were unable to cast a ballot with the student IDs that they had used in the past as well as people of color who were disproportionately impacted by the new law, as a federal judge ruled in October. Although the judge had determined that the law was intentionally enacted to diminish the electoral influence of Texas’s growing black and Latino populations and constituted an unconstitutional “poll tax,” a week later, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened to allow the voter ID law stand for the election.

The new laws on voter identification and registration, as well as restrictions on early voting and other forms of voting popular with minorities and low-income voters, likely affected millions of people across the country who were not able to participate in the election this year. These would-be voters joined the ranks of an estimated 5.8 million U.S. citizens who are disenfranchised due to a criminal conviction, including some 2.6 million who have served their sentences. While in most states, felons may regain the right to vote after fulfilling their sentences, several permanently revoke voting rights for those convicted of felonies.

For example, under Florida’s felon disenfranchisement law, among the harshest in the country, 1.3 million are prevented from voting in elections, including one in three African-American men in the state who are effectively disenfranchised for life. Meanwhile, the Florida governor’s race was decided last week by just under 72,000 votes, with Governor Rick Scott narrowly beating former Governor Charlie Crist thanks largely to a rule change on felon disenfranchisement that Scott had helped enact.

As usual, last week’s midterm election also saw a high degree of voting irregularities across the country, with voters in Connecticut, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Alabama and other states all encountering serious problems at polling places. As MSNBC reported, “The issues included malfunctioning machines that caused long lines, problems with statewide voter registration systems, missing voter lists, and delays processing voter registration applications.”

According to a spokesman for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the group’s Election Protection hotline had received 18,498 calls by 8 p.m. ET, with voters phoning in to report all sorts of problems casting ballots across the country. Leading the way with complaints were Florida with 1,967 calls, Texas with 1,876 calls, and Georgia with 1,815 calls.

Besides issues of gerrymandering, voter suppression and Election Day irregularities, another important factor playing a role in the midterms was the record-breaking campaign spending by parties and candidates, as well as the unprecedented levels of “independent” expenditures, including nearly a billion dollars of untraceable “dark money.” All in all, nearly four billion dollars was spent to influence electoral outcomes last week, with Republicans enjoying a clear advantage.

As Russ Choma of the Center for Responsive Politics explained, “Republicans made the most of their fundraising advantage and routed Democrats in Tuesday’s midterms, but they seized the majority in the Senate and built their lead in the House even as fewer donors participated in the process and more of the dollars came from secret sources.” While Democrats were generally well-funded, the GOP had the upper hand, Choma pointed out.

The real story of campaign financing, however, was not which side had more resources in party coffers or in individual candidates’ war chests, but the fact that a huge share of the total spending was attributed to a tiny group of ultra-wealthy donors using outside groups to inundate voters with a barrage of negative and misleading ads. As Choma explains, “Both sides had plenty of support from outside spenders, but Republican and conservative outside groups outpaced the spending of Democratic and liberal ones.”

The avalanche of dark money attracted the attention of a delegation of international observers who were in Washington for the elections. Parliamentarians from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a press release issued Nov. 5 that with the “truly staggering” role of money in campaigns “overshadowing the real issues at stake in the elections,” there is “increasing inequality in the process.”

“The campaign was active and competitive, but often with negative advertising and mutual accusations lowering the quality of debate and turning voters off. Discussion of the real policy challenges facing the country suffered as a result,” said Isabel Santos, leader of the OSCE observers.

It is now becoming clear the degree to which voters were indeed “turned off.” With just 36.4 percent of eligible voters participating, according to an estimate by the United States Elections Project, it appears that turnout in these midterms was the lowest overall in 72 years (since the wartime midterm elections of 1942) , and down several percentage points from 2010.

While there are any number of theories as to why turnout would be so low, it’s likely that the tsunami of negative advertising played a role, as well as the Democrats’ avoidance of “controversial” and divisive issues such as climate change, economic inequality and immigration. This is despite the fact that according to polls, likely Democratic voters overwhelmingly pointed to the environment and wealth disparity as two of their top priorities, and the American public is overwhelmingly in support of comprehensive immigration reform as generally advocated by Democrats.

According to one recent survey, around 62 percent of Americans favor a legal pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and would be less likely to vote for candidates who oppose reform. But for whatever reason, the Democratic Party declined to make this a national issue in the midterms.

More generally, although the elections took place in an overall atmosphere of discontent in the country, with Congress’s approval ratings at historic lows of 13 per cent, paradoxically for millions of Americans there seemed to be no good reason to go out and vote. With only five percent of voters saying that most members of Congress have done a good enough job to deserve re-election, according to a CBS-New York Times poll taken two months before the election, and 87 percent saying that it is “time to give new people a chance,” just 15 percent of Americans reported following election coverage “very closely” in a Pew survey taken in early October, which was down ten percentage points from 2010.

While the pundits continue to debate what the Democrats did wrong – from failures in messaging to a breakdown in the party’s “ground game” – few would be willing to acknowledge that the problem may lie within the electoral framework itself, not only regarding the undemocratic influences of big money, gerrymandering and voter suppression, but also the very nature of the two-party system and its lack of genuine options for an electorate fed up, perhaps, with politics as usual.

The numbers of Americans identifying as “independents” are at record highs – far surpassing the numbers who are registered as Democrats or Republicans – but in many states, American voters were deprived of their right to hear from all ballot-qualified candidates due to media bias against “third parties.” Although 22 states held open debates this year, including Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Vermont, many others such as California, Florida, Minnesota, and Utah blocked independents and minor party candidates from appearing in televised debates.

In Minnesota, although the Independence Party received five percent of the vote for statewide office in 2010, making it legally indiscernible from the so-called “major” parties, Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Hannah Nicollet was banned from debates this year and even excluded from polls which might have qualified her participation under the debates’ polling requirements.

So, for any number of reasons, it is clear that the 2014 midterms – and U.S. elections in general – are neither free nor fair, and therefore, the efforts among the pundit class to attach some “meaning” or “message” regarding the Democrats’ defeat are either disingenuous or ill-informed. One thing that should be taken as a truism is that they certainly offer the Republicans no “mandate” to carry out a reactionary, right-wing agenda, and that President Obama is under no obligation to compromise with such an agenda.

Further, it is key that the United States get serious about electoral reform so that future elections offer a genuine opportunity to change the governance of the country and provide meaningful input on the direction that the nation should take, which of course is what elections should be all about.

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