By Jason Reece, Research Director,
Last Wednesday night was trick-or-treat, or beggars night here in Columbus, OH. While passing out about ten bags of candy, we were visited by lots of zombies, witches, princesses — and more than a few Marvel superheroes. A great Halloween, but not scary by any means; that is, until we looked in our mailbox, and checked our voice mail. Despite the holiday, we had been visited yet again by the thing that had started to bring chills up my spine, another 2012 election advertisement. Ok, let me clarify — multiple election 2012 advertisements, inundating us by any means possible: by robocall, by campaign volunteers knocking on our front door, by ads on radio and TV, and by the half-dozen election ads we find in the mailbox daily. All of these ads tell terrible tales of woe about their political opposition, spinning yarns of potential horror — often fiction that Stephen King would find impressive.
Ohioans have become accustomed to their critical swing state status in national elections. Presidential visits are so common in our State, that a running joke is that if we could only figure out a way to tax visiting candidates, we would never worry about a state budget deficit again. But something about this year’s election is decidedly different. Maybe it’s the money, or the wicked measures taken to disenfranchise certain voters or the knowledge that forces outside of our State are working to an unprecedented degree to influence our election. October figures indicated that the top ten political campaign funders in have spent more than $150 million on advertising in Ohio. One political consultant recently noted in The Columbus Dispatch:
“Obviously, what you’re seeing is Ohio is in the white-hot center of the political universe. You’re seeing a tripling, quadrupling of everything,”
All of this election spending and attention by outside interests raises an important question, when does election engagement reach a point where it starts to encroach on our personal agency and voting rights?
First, let’s start with the money. It’s no secret that election spending this year is different than previous years, and the Citizens United Case and that the rise of Super PACSshas changed the face of our election. Super PACs have spent $840 million in this election, with the majority targeted to supporting Republican Candidate Mitt Romney. These Super PAC ads tend to be primarily negative and more likely to contain deceptive claims. They also funded by a fairly exclusive set of donors: just over 800 donors represent nearly two-thirds of Super PAC funds raised, and 149 of the wealthiest donors represent nearly half of the funds raised. Additionally, more than $200 million in “dark money” has been spent on the election, funds which cannot be traced to the original donors.
Second, the State has wrangled for months with contested fights over voting processes, early voting and voting accessibility, from challenges to early voting to fights over extending voting hours. When I can renew my auto registration and pay my mortgage over the phone, at any time, and without onerous identification requirements, the idea of going to a physical voting booth at a particular time of the day to vote seems, well,… quaint. Innovations like early voting are an attempt to respond to our changing society. The resistance to expanded early voting opportunities and the notion that placing more barriers to voting is good for our democracy seems at best counter-intuitive. Efforts in our State to require voter ID for millions of Ohio voters are completely out of proportion to alleged voter fraud. Voter fraud is an extremely rare event, and the probability of widespread voter fraud is about as likely as real witches and zombies showing up on my porch for Halloween. I have yet to see a study in the United States documenting that too many of us are exercising our voting rights. When we should be making voting easier, that fact that some seek to place barriers to this most basic and fundamental form of engagement is troubling.
Some forms of voter outreach have varied from bizarre to intimidating. The conservative organization “Americans for Limited Government” has saturated GOP-leaning neighborhoods with flyers listing which people in the neighborhood voted in the last two elections, apparently hoping for some form of peer-pressure outreach. A scarier occurrence has been the attempts to intimidate voters, an “outreach” both reprehensible and racially and economically motivated. Just a few blocks east of the campus of The Ohio State University sat a large billboard, insinuating that just the act of voting would send you to prison. This neighborhood is majority African American and economically disadvantaged, and the location of all of the other “Vote and Face Prison” billboards went into demographically similar neighborhoods across the State. These notorious billboards, which were recently taken down by Clear Channel, were anonymously funded until a recent disclosure revealed that the financier was a wealthy hedge fund manager and GOP supporter from Wisconsin. The “Vote and Face Prison” billboards show how grossly outside money is attempting to trample on our democratic voting rights in Ohio.
I find this deeply troubling, because I spend much of my time working with community partners to support community engagement and civic engagement in neighborhoods which face many challenges, with the goal of building an essential but often elusive community good: social capital. A recent article by ShelterForce noted the paltry sums of money dedicated to community organizing and voter right protection. I work with communities that do not even have a public meeting space and rely exclusively on overtaxed volunteers. Many folks in these neighborhoods are already disengaged from civic life often as a result of the day-to-day challenges of living in poverty.
Dissuading voting in communities that have historically been disenfranchised, and currently at best have a tenuous connection to election involvement, is a travesty. Electoral efforts like the “Vote and Face Prison” billboards are a vivid message that people in these neighborhoods are not viewed equally and are not welcome members of our society. In places where social capital is one the decline, public schools are financially struggling, and grassroots community engagement is rarely invested in, voter intimidation is not a wise investment in our future, or our democracy.