Voter-ID Laws Just the Tip of the Iceberg

There's more than one way to disenfranchise voters. What about anonymous corporate campaign donors?

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(The Root) -- By now it's well-known that Republican-dominated efforts to impose and enforce voter-ID requirements may constitute the most pernicious and effective means of suppressing the votes of the poor, racial minorities, rural voters and the elderly since the poll tax and the literacy test.

Attorney General Eric Holder has demonstrated fierce and unwavering commitment to fighting the imposition of these requirements in states covered by the Voting Rights Act -- a decision that may well underpin the recent contempt-vote absurdity led by a right wing that has been desperate to undermine the attorney general's resolve on the voter-ID issue. Civil rights and activists groups have also marshaled their resources to educate voters in states where ID laws are in force and to challenge efforts to intimidate voters under the guise of enforcing ID laws.  

Holder and voting-rights activists are right to regard these voter-ID laws as a threat to democracy. It was the Supreme Court that 120 years ago first identified the right to vote as "preservative of all rights." For this reason, the Voting Rights Act has long been regarded even by those on the right as the "crown jewel" of civil rights laws.

But interfering with the ability of marginalized citizens to cast a ballot on Election Day is not the only means of disenfranchisement with which we should be concerned. Indeed, our myopic focus on barriers to voting has allowed the proliferation of far more widespread, complex and potentially irreversible disenfranchisement techniques. Among the most threatening to the effective exercise of the franchise is the door opened by the Supreme Court's widely derided Citizens United decision, which advanced the ability of corporations, unions and other groups to contribute large amounts of money to political-campaign ads (including ads for campaigns of elected state court judges).  

Who's Contributing to a Political Campaign?

More disturbing still is the fact that some of the largest campaign-ad contributions from these groups will be made secretly. This means that a voter -- even if unimpeded by voter-ID laws -- will cast his or her ballot wearing the equivalent of a blindfold.

The voter will not know whether or to what extent corporate or union interests are behind relentless television or radio ads supporting or denouncing a candidate. It should matter to voters whether one of their congressional or judicial candidates has received this kind of substantial support from the insurance industry or from pharmaceutical corporations.

Voters may know that an ad supporting or denouncing a candidate for office in their district has been funded by a corporation calling itself Crossroads GPS, a Karl Rove-created organization that runs ads in support of Republican candidates. But voters also need to know who funds the million-dollar ad buys of Crossroads. Under current law, Crossroads is billed as an "issue advocacy" organization and need not disclose its donors -- this despite its ability to spend millions targeting candidates for political office.

This secrecy is not compelled by Citizens United. Although the Supreme Court held in that case that corporations and unions cannot be limited in their political giving, nothing in the decision gives corporations the right to give secretly to campaigns. In fact, Justice Anthony Kennedy talked favorably about the importance of disclosure.

To shed more light on the sources of campaign-ad donations, Senate Democrats have proposed the Disclose Act (pdf), legislation that would require disclosure of the identity of groups spending more than $10,000 on campaign ads and donors contributing more than $10,000. This would allow voters to have information about whether and which corporations or unions are supporting candidates for public office.

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