June 20, 2010
The Color of Money
On the June 17 edition of “Countdown”, Keith Olbermann interviewed The Nation magazine’s Senior Editor, Chris Hays, in a segment about the Democratic Senate Primary in South Carolina. In the course of the conversation Hays pointed out that the only reason there has any attention paid to the surprise victory of Alvin Greene is because he had no money.
If you think about it, there is an implicit assumption in most discussions about Greene that money brings success in politics and most commentators seem bemused by election results where the candidate with the most campaign cash actually lost.
This is not a case of black vs white, as in complexion, but a matter of green, as in cash. It is disheartening to realize that the green of campaign dollars has so clouded our electoral system that we automatically assume that a candidate without access to gobs of cash will surely lose.
If the best predictor about which candidate will prevail at the ballot box is which one has the biggest stash of cash, then American democracy has strayed far from its egalitarian ideal. It is rare, indeed, in today’s America, when a true political “outsider” wins an election unless, of course, they have access to a personal fortune or generous “big donor” base. The time is long past, if it ever existed, when a genuine “man of the people” can get elected to Congress or (gasp!) to the Presidency.
Money influences most decision making in modern campaigns – e.g., which candidates get to run; how to find the buckets of cash necessary for a campaign; which contributors will gain “access” by their largess to a particular candidate; how to best use a campaign war chest to help other candidates and still spend enough to win one’s own race.
Pundits would not be giving airtime or ink to the South Carolina Primary results except for the disparity between the candidates in the money they were able to raise and spend on the campaign. And because the winning candidate has virtually no money, they are busily searching for an alternate explanation as to why Greene appears to have won. “Ballot position,” “dirty tricks” by the Republican party; the “hacking,” malfunctioning or mis-programming of the ES&S paperless voting machines are some of the possibilities that have been laid on the table. Indeed, it is possible that some combination of all of the above is the best explanation – it is not necessarily true that only one of these suggestions is correct. I tend to think all of the above may have played some role in Greene’s out-of-nowhere victory.
That being said, it is important to seize this opportunity to highlight the problematic nature of the paperless voting machines used in this election. While the spotlight is turned on the unrecountable and unauditable nature of these machines, we need to insist on moving toward a better election technology. The long-term solution to at least a part of this puzzle is to ditch the paperless machines and require voter verified paper ballots for all elections in this country. The South Carolina election provides an excellent opportunity to bring public scrutiny to this problem and point toward the obvious solution.
That was actually Chris Hays’ final thought in his conversation with Keith Olbermann – of course, we should be looking at the voting machines, he said.
We also need to find a way to get the overwhelming influence of money out of our elections – the primary color of our elections should not be green, as in greenbacks.
Public financing of elections is an effective way to make this happen. It has been tried statewide in Maine and Arizona, at the local level in jurisdictions around the country. The time has come to move toward public campaign financing at the Federal level, also, so as to prevent future amazement that a candidate like Alvin Greene had a chance to win because there was a more level playing field. Pass the Fair Elections Now Act and bring true reform to American elections. Pass the damn bill now.