The Devil’s Bargain: Voting Rights or Voting Choice?

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“Under The Guise of ‘For the People’, Lawmakers Feign To Support Voters Rights, But Suppress Voter Choice – Which Is Far More Important”

There’s no more fundamental expression of inalienable liberty than the right of universal suffrage and yet America’s 170,000 parochial electoral jurisdictions are hopelessly atomized, opaque and (to varying degrees) corrupted by bureaucracy, legacies of frontier lawlessness, organized bribery and decades of bad incentives left to play out without scrutiny or coherent voter accountability. The Democratic-led 117th Congress has been presented with a complex of bold legislative propositions (i.e. changes, corrections, consolidation) with the potential to redefine the relationship between Americans and the democratic process. “Voting Rights” provisions may seem innocuous but be assured, this is legislation ever intelligent American needs to watch as if their future depended on it.

VOTING RIGHTS ACTS

Legislation has been introduced concurrently in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

“To expand Americans’ access to the ballot box and reduce the influence of big money in politics, and for other purposes.”

The proposed Voting Rights “Acts” are extensive, including but not limited the following: voting rights, voter support, national election rules, finance regulating, candidate and campaign funding, polling infrastructure, ballot access, ballot handling, standardized reporting, transparency, etc.

Democrats, media and lobbyists have been deployed in Congress and across news media to hammer the message of urgent need to address threats to American democracy, to save the Republic from impending doom. To date support for the Acts have run along partisan lines. No Act has been sent to the White House for signing into statute. Negotiations and DC bullshittery are ongoing.

OPPORTUNISM?

According to the marketing pitch, Democrat lawmakers are trying – in the name of defending voter participation from years of discriminatory action in the Republican state legislatures – to pass comprehensive federally enforced voting rights. This is true, but the proposed Acts are 1000+ pages of bold legislation and voting rights clauses are part of an overarching ambition to force a less egalitarian Devil’s bargain on the American people.

Government by permanent Blue-Red duopoly in exchange for your right to vote.

Our political class has found a way to turn the years of state-level erosion of voter expression into a far more pernicious federal-level erosion of voter freedom. Because, while the proposed legislation would indeed restore voter rights stolen by widespread GOP gerrymandering and exploited loopholes in thousands of electoral processes, it includes a greater number of dangerous clauses that must be stripped out. If the offending clauses remain in the final signed statute the Acts restoration of voting access will be subverted by what amounts to an anti-democratic assault on voter choice.

Interlarded with the good democratic law, the Acts include sections that will rework key mechanisms of American democracy, subtle but significant changes to regulations governing party coordination of candidates, candidate funding, and bipartisan oversight over ballot access that will be a fatal blow to what’s left of the political parties outside the Democratic Party-Republican Party duopoly. Needless to say, these changes are a big problem.

The Acts address many of the state-level instances of voter suppression and contain numerous pro-democracy, anti-corruption measures but – at the same time – they signal a clear intention to force Americans into a Devil’s bargain: voting rights or voting choice? The Acts include provisions that:

  • undermine long-standing provisions for public funding1  to redress duopoly ‘buying elections’ i.e. large donor and big business spending to overwhelm small parties and outsider candidates
  • introduce new obstacles to ballot access, like increased finance qualification levels2
  • expand match funding to more stringent eligibility criteria
  • reduce the potential for candidates to raise ‘clean money’ from the public3
  • bias campaign donations to favor corporate/NGO funding that circumvents “coordinated spender” restrictions penalizing smaller parties and outsider candidates
  • expand the types of campaign spending deemed limitable contributions coordinated with the candidate – favoring centralized national committee, big business gifts of access to infrastructure and fundraising opportunities, empowering corporate party candidates over grassroots campaigns forced to count pennies, pay top dollar for services, kneecapping potential for exceptional individual candidates to compete
  • eliminate expenditure limits for participating candidates in the primary and general election
  • use federal funds (and withholding federal money) to force state compliance in matters of elections, finance and voter access (registration, polling day holiday, voter ID, mail-in, standardized 1-day ballot reporting, vote tracking, vote dropbox ubiquity, etc)
  • allow the national committees of political parties to spend more money in coordination with their candidates5
  • force campaign and candidate expenditure (including public funds) exclusively through party committees4like the DNC and RNC – giving them god-like powers over official candidate selection and dictating the reach of candidate campaigns
  • enshrine the duopoly dominance of election oversight and administration, by mandating five FEC seats, equal Democrat-Republican split, up to two Democrats and two Republicans plus non-partisan fifth seat to break deadlocks appointed by bipartisan blue-ribbon advisory commission
  • imposes partisan loyalty and behavior pledges on the Supreme Court

TROJAN HORSE

Small wonder the 117th session’s “Acts” have been described as “…another Trojan Horse legislation.” They provide much needed law to restore access to the democratic process (voting rights) and – as it stands – add numerous provisions to increase transparency and decrease ‘revolving door’ nepotism. Ultimately, however, it’s hard not to perceive the “Acts” as benign legal instruments. More plausibly, they’re a cover story for an ulterior agenda to shore up bipartisan duopoly. No other justification makes sense as an explanation for the “Acts” targeting one of the core tenets of nascent American democracy: ballot pluralism.

In electoral terms, ballot pluralism means voters get to choose from a range of distinct parties and competing candidates – ideally representing something roughly like the diversity of the constituency. In late 18th-century America, ballot pluralism was a genuine innovation of applied political thinking.8 By design, ballot pluralism serves the inclusion of third parties like Libertarians and Greens, supports autonomous candidates like Ralph Nader and Ross Perot, as well as independent caucus candidates like Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang. 

Despite pro-voting rights measures, the “Acts” throttle voter choice by regulating election finance to undermine ballot pluralism in favor of Red-Blue monoculture. The latter is the greater evil, not least because the exclusion of third parties (and third way candidature) risks irreversible damage to the institutions of governance at a time of great post-pandemic mistrust. Voters deserve better.

Much of the deterioration in quality of national life – polarization, extremism, divisive echo chambers, monopolistic overreach, unaccountable bipartisan plutocracy, corporate capture of national party policy – is fallout from abandoning the free-market plurality of ideas that drove the exceptional dynamism of American expansion in the 19th and 20th century. It is a senseless and myopic failure of governance; and of voters, to hold representatives accountable.

Ballot pluralism – despite little or no public recognition – is an essential part of the suffrage front-line. It is the real-world product of freedom expressed as political choice and without true choice, democracy dies. Without authentic representative diversity on the ballot, election becomes mere colorful procession, everybody playing their predetermined roles ‘voting’ for preselected prescreened candidate-puppets of unaccountable government.6 Such spectacles are no different to the affirmation elections staged by demagogues like Putin, Xi and dozens of authoritarian so-called People’s Republics. America wasn’t founded to be another totalitarian gangster state.

“Public funding for non-duopoly campaigns that challenge power is a necessary equity measure to match corporate donor money for duopoly campaigns that consolidate it.” –John F Kennedy (35th US President 1960-1963)

EQUALITY BULLSHIT

Advocates of the “Acts” point out its adherence – in the legal text, not simply in rhetoric – to the American principle of equitable, level-playing field treatment of political parties and candidates.

"All are subject to the same criteria, the same financial regulations, the same letter of the law," Nancy Pelosi would probably say.
"Equality before the law, a more perfect democratic union," Amy Klobuchar might add.

The problem with ‘all parties equal before the law’ as a defense for the Voting Rights Act (H.R.1/S.1) is playing out in 3100 county courthouses, 94 district courts and 687 federal courthouses. Buy better representation, receive better outcomes. Poor and unsupported, expect the worst from an encounter with the courts. In our capitalist legal system, just as in our capital-dominated political system, equality before the law is complete bullshit.

If the Acts are signed into statute, the new legislation will provide some short-term redress for recent Red State abuse of voting rights. Unfortunately the Acts go beyond simple redress and most of its later sections are devoted to bolstering the bipartisan Red-Blue stranglehold on government. They will enable the federal government duopoly to marginalize dissent out of the electoral process, to deny funding to would-be challengers (unless endorsed by the Democratic or Republican Party committees).

Voting rights or voting choice?

Congress should not be forcing zero-sum binaries on the voter public. It’s not necessary to impose an either/or when the solution is to restore voting rights and safeguard voter choice. If the Acts enter statute unamended, far from saving the American democracy, they will impoverish it.

“Objectively, in a system of representative democracy, choice may actually be more important than rights (so long as a majority retain the rights and can therefore vote for change). Universal voting in an election with two corporate-centrist to choose from is no choice at all. Without ballot pluralism, voting rights mean nothing.”Alexis de Toqueville (1836)

RIGHTS WITHOUT CHOICE?

The proposed changes to election oversight and the redirecting of power over campaign funding to national party committees will be fatal to ballot pluralism. It will ensure there’s no successor to the grassroots Bernie Sanders movement of 2016. It will exclude potential involvement of a Forward Party of #YangGang enthusiasts. There’ll be no new parties at all. The Acts will reverse decades of state by state ballot access progress for Libertarians and Greens. There will be no space in the electoral process for eccentric idealists trying to pull American politics back from the brink.

In a complicated, unpredictable real world, laws that enshrine a de jure bipartisan consensus do not secure freedom or democracy. What they do instead is serve the interests of duopoly at the expense of the voter public; and the incentives of a plutocratic electoral system do not converge on healthy democratic institutions.

Quite the reverse.

Wresting power from entrenched duopoly becomes more difficult each time a new Act or Order is signed into law and eventually its grip will be too tight to dislodge. By its nature, the totalitarian bipartisan vision is the not government by the people, for the people, it’s the antithesis of those constitutional ideals the Founding Fathers risked life and limb to defend.7

Whether it’s the current Freedom to Vote Act H.R.1/S.1 lineage or some new incarnation further down the line, Voting Acts must not be allowed to slip under the radar. We must be vigilant against stealth attack on freedom of voting choice; even if tempted by offers of voting rights redress. The latter cannot be compensation for loss of the former. Americans needs both the voting rights and the voting choice. Anything less and representative democracy becomes little more than a Potemkin village.

“An unchallenged duopoly would be the end of the American experiment.”John F Kennedy (35th US President, 1960-1963)

If we looked forward into an exclusively bipartisan future, what would we see? An endless, uniform expanse of fields colored Republican Red and Democratic Blue, stretching off into the sunset…


LINKS

The proposed Voting Rights “Acts” are a paradigm of advanced legislation. It is presented as a voting rights initiative, it includes provisions for restoring lost voting rights, but the Act’s gift is a smokescreen for measures that vest totalitarian power in Republican and Democratic Duopoly.8


FOOTNOTES

1     The Acts would replace the 1:1 match in public funding with a 6:1 match, but simultaneously increase the minimum amount of donations (to get matched with public funding) by 500% to a minimum of $25,000 in each of 20 states – an effective increase in minimum number of contributions to reach eligibility by 625%.

2      Wealthy donors can effectively circumvent the candidate contribution limit by giving to the party committees directly and have them funnel up to $300 million forwarded candidates, effectively raising the amount big donors can contribute to a candidate to more than $115,000 in a year.

3    “The Acts remove voters’ ability to fund grassroots campaigns with 100% clean money and matching funds. It increases the role of big money in elections, and limits voter choice: less candidates in primaries, only Red or Blue party candidates in elections. It can be argued that this is voter suppression because it removes a positive incentive for many voters to vote at all.”

4    “Removing the general election public funding grant, the Acts eliminate existing opportunities for minor parties to benefit under current public financing law, where any party that receives between 5% and 25% would get a pro-rated portion of the public funding in the next election. Raising the primary election matching funds threshold helps ensure only a limited number of anointed candidates qualify for it, a neat way to get rid of those who stay in primary race too long.” – Michael Feinstein (American Green Party)

5     In the 2020 Presidential Election, both of the major parties had to contend with primary fields of 20+ candidates, jostling for power. This is a nightmare for the duopoly’s model of controlled opposition. More than anything, duopoly fears the unpredictability of being sucker punched from the “inside” by uncompromising “outsider” caucus candidates. Close-run elections with too many candidates to control are all kinds of anathema to the national party committees.

6     The Acts are the 2021/2022 proposed legislation in a multi-year strategy by the partisan elites to shield the election cycle from disruptive actors who won’t keep to the script. If the Acts pass into law, America’s primaries and elections will start to play out like clockwork, directed by the Republican and Democratic Party national committees. There will be no more shocks, no spoiler candidates.

7 The duopoly-deep state wet dream for Democratic Party primaries of 2024 is a race for anointment between Kamala Harris for the FBI versus Pete Buttigieg for the CIA. These contests are the opposite – the antithesis – of democracy.

8 Fifteenth AmendmentRight To Vote Not To Be Denied By Race | Voting Rights Act (6-Aug-1964) | Voting Rights Act (Amendments 1970, 1975) | Voting Rights Act (Amendments 1982) | Voting Rights Language Assistance Act (1992) | Voting Rights Act (2006 Extension) | Voting Rights Act (Amendment 2015)

BE WARNED: The Voting Rights/ Freedom to Vote (S.R.1/H.1) Act is a Trojan Horse.