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Democracy Under Siege

Four GOP hopefuls participated in the "Sheldon Primary," trying to impress billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

American democracy is under attack on two fronts: The destructive impact of big money and the continuing Republican attempt to restrict voting.

First, big money. Several 2016 GOP hopefuls trudged to Las Vegas this past week, supposedly to strut their wares before the spring leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, but really to compete in the so-called “Sheldon Primary,” named for Sheldon Adelson, the wealthy casino owner who spent $92 million backing losers in the 2012 elections, first New Gingrich in the primaries and then Mitt Romney in the general election.

Adelson reportedly has adopted a new strategy for 2016: Trying to win by investing his money on a more mainstream Republican with a better shot at living in the White House. To further that goal, Adelson invited former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Ohio Governor John Kasich to his luxurious Venetian resort hotel and casino to vie for his affections. The candidates spoke at the official meeting of GOP Jews and then had more important one-on-ones with the magnate himself, trying to win Adelson’s backing for their putative candidacies.

Adelson is not the only big money donor playing in politics these days. But he is a useful symbol of the harmful effect of big money, present in American politics almost from the beginning but ever more dangerous following the Supreme Court’s indefensible 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case. That decision led to the rise of the super PACs which now dominate the political system as they are permitted to take unlimited contributions from corporations, unions, and individuals.

The onslaught of a torrent of cash forces candidates to court the big donors. Hence, a weekend in Las Vegas. It’s unseemly enough for the four candidates to cater to the whims of a casino owner, who made his money in a legal but somewhat tawdry manner; worse is the need to impress a man like Adelson, whose only claim to fame is his wealth.

Apparently, several days impressing one obscenely wealthy man is more important than hitting the hustings to woo voters.

Speaking of voters brings us to point two, the Republican effort to limit the franchise to older white men. The GOP can’t, of course, do that, but it can try to come as close as possible by placing restrictions on registering and on access to voting.

For several election cycles, Republicans in control of state legislatures have imposed stringent ID laws, demanding voters have proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or a passport. Many poor people do not possess either, so such laws make it far more difficult for the urban poor, often minorities and the young, to vote. Those constituencies, of course, trend Democratic.

Now, Republican legislatures are moving beyond the identification requirements to restrict access to the polls by cutting weekend voting and limiting other forms of early voting. Some states have eliminated same-day voter registration; others cut the hours and days the polls are open for early voting. Restricting access to the polls harms low-income hourly workers who often find their paychecks docked if they have to vote on Tuesdays. It also impedes the practice of many black churches, which organize caravans to the polls on the Sundays before election day.

The influence of the Supreme Court can be seen on restrictive voting laws, just as on big money. That’s because last year the high court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring Southern states to seek federal approval prior to altering their electoral laws. Now those Republican-dominated states can restrict voting with impunity.

Advocates of restrictive voting laws claim they are eliminating fraud, though the rate of electoral cheating in the last several decades is infinitesimal. But even if fraud were an issue, it’s hard to see what closing the polls on the Sunday before election day would accomplish.

Except, of course, to keep Democratic-leaning groups from voting.

Expanding access to the franchise has been a constant thread of American democracy, from the colonial period through the Civil Rights era. When the Republic was founded, most states allowed only free white men of property to vote. Gradually, property restrictions were eliminated, allowing all free white men to vote. After the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment gave the freedmen the franchise, though Southern states devised creative means to circumvent the amendment’s intent. Then, the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote. In the 1960s, legal barriers preventing African American voting came down, and finally in 1971 the Twenty-sixth Amendment gave voting privileges to all over the age of eighteen.

Now, the arc of history, which trended toward increasing the franchise, is being bent the other way by Republican state legislatures.

Restrictive voting laws and big money: Two evils undermining American democracy.

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