An Activist Court’s Ideology: More Money, Less Voting

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President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. on Aug. 6, 1965 upon signing the Voting Rights Act. Credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. on Aug. 6, 1965 upon signing the Voting Rights Act. Credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

This post originally appeared at The Nation.

In the past four years, under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court has made it far easier to buy an election and far harder to vote in one.

First came the Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which brought us the super PAC era.

Then came the Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act.

Now we have McCutcheon v. FEC, where the Court, in yet another controversial 5-4 opinion written by Roberts, struck down the limits on how much an individual can contribute to candidates, parties and political action committees. So instead of an individual donor being allowed to give $117,000 to campaigns, parties and PACs in an election cycle (the aggregate limit in 2012), they can now give up to $3.5 million, Andy Kroll of Mother Jones reports.

The Court’s conservative majority believes that the First Amendment gives wealthy donors and powerful corporations the carte blanche right to buy an election but that the Fifteenth Amendment does not give Americans the right to vote free of racial discrimination.

These are not unrelated issues—the same people, like the Koch brothers, who favor unlimited secret money in US elections are the ones funding the effort to make it harder for people to vote. The net effect is an attempt to concentrate the power of the top 1 percent in the political process and to drown out the voices and votes of everyone else.

Consider these stats from Demos on the impact of Citizens United in the 2012 election:

·  The top thirty-two Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined — that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200 each.

·  Nearly 60 percent of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93 percent of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000 — from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011 percent of the US population.

·  It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelsons’ $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.

That trend is only going to get worse in the wake of the McCutcheon decision.

Now consider what’s happened since Shelby County: eight states previously covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act have passed or implemented new voting restrictions (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina). That has had a ripple effect elsewhere. According to The New York Times, “nine states [under GOP control] have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013.”

A country that expands the rights of the powerful to dominate the political process but does not protect the fundament rights of all citizens doesn’t sound much like a functioning democracy to me.

Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute. His first book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, was published in October 2010 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. He is now working on a history of voting rights since 1965. Tweet him @AriBerman.
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  • Anonymous

    I don’t like to visit countries where the top 1% rule and the rest live in poverty. Why would the top 1% like it?

  • Norman Morris

    As long as they own it all and other people have to pay for it. It is a easy living.

  • Roy C. Johnson

    I honestly don’t think people living in poverty concerns the top 1%. What does it have to do with them? The more they can get their way, the less they need to worry about anyone else.

  • Anonymous

    The Richest .01 percent of Americans have imposed these toxic standards of democracy because the 99.999 percent have allowed it.

    Best I know the Koch brothers haven’t killed anybody to get their way.

    They haven’t funded any Army to coerce the State or Federal Legislatures.

    There’s no proof whatsoever, that they fed three hundred million fellow citizens enough “Stupid Juice” to explain the wholesale transfer of Democratic Political Sovereignty away from people to the Monopoly Corporations that answer exclusively to the richest .01 percent of the American electorate.

    Best I can tell, even the most cursory review of the Political History will find a slow, quiet; even civil process of persuasion and seduction and financial capture; in which the 99.999 percent have watched their Civil and Human Rights evaporate in, what can best be described as relative complicit silence.

    We are NOT the victims of the .01 percent.

    We are the victims of our venal silence.

  • Anonymous

    They love it.

    See Mexico…… Nigeria ….. Athens ……. Colombia …… Botswana ….
    Peru ….. Liberia …..San Salvador ….. Costa Rica …… Delhi ….. Bangkok ……..

  • Anonymous

    Because they only notionally “Live” in those places. They may live within the national boundaries but their world doesn’t really touch the world of the peasant. Fences, gates, security guards, armored limos… And it’s actually SO much cheaper to have your house there. Afew million bucks in NY or one of the tony spots gets you a hovel; that same few million bucks in the third world gets you a mansion with a private army AND a big enough chunk of the government that you can live like you own the place. Because you do.

  • Benjy Franklin

    But we, the people, should not cower or give in to despair. Those restaurant workers aren’t quitting. They have summoned a spirit from deep within our past, when those early insurgents stood against imperial authority. 
    – Bill Moyers 

    Believing that: 
    When injustice becomes law, defiance becomes duty. 
    –  Thomas Jefferson (implied)

    It’s seems to me that any dogmatic interpretation taken to an extreme always leads to nonsense such as this ; the essential problem is that unbridled power in the hands of an 
    ?unimpeachable? few always leads to abuse of the common person like this. 

    Around 99% of  the comments about McCutcheon ruling are negative and dire.
    However I think the implications of this ruling is actually much worse than that for ,  no surprise , 99% of people .

    People unite and Use the power of the masses on social media to Impeach and rescind these corrupt rascals via electronic plebiscite Post Haste.

    One person, One Vote !
    – Benjy Franklin