The Best Congress Money Can Buy
Why Americans Don’t Vote
Whose Votes Count?: Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights
Character: America’s Search for Leadership
To those who complain that our electoral campaigns are too long, a cynic might respond, “It doesn’t matter how long they are—no one is listening.” A deeper cynic could add that it would not matter even if people were listening. One is tempted toward the latter position after reading Philip Stern’s grim book, The Best Congress Money Can Buy. He proves that, no matter how long and draining is the quest for votes, the wooing of money is even more prolonged and intense for politicians. An office holder has some (though less and less) surcease from electioneering; but fund-raising is a constant. The only way for a member of Congress not to be running a debt from the last campaign is to be building a fund for the next one.
Stern points out that “the average United States senator must raise nearly $10,000 a week every week during his or her entire six-year Senate term.” And things are worse than that average makes them sound. The money does not flow in according to its recipients’ needs or with any hydraulic principle of equitable distribution. What the donors, especially the PAC managers, are buying is not elections but influence. Much of their money goes, therefore, to sure winners with influential posts. Safe incumbents are happy to take such cash—it is, after all, one of the things that define their seats as safe and deter challengers. Besides, a reserve cash supply allows one to help others, throw one’s weight around, and even leave office with a residue for personal use. This bankrolling of influence does not make it any easier for purer, because poorer, candidates to take on the people so hedged with cash. It just makes them more desperate for the kind of money necessary to challenge the redundantly financed. Since challenger money is even harder to come by, getting it takes more time, though it comes in smaller amounts.
Raising money is necessary to the electoral system, though often at odds with its rationale, inhibiting the voters’ range of choice by the prior operation of money, much of it from outside the candidate’s own district—“anonymous” money that was donated not to any specific candidate, but for use by its managers in any way that will increase their hold on crucial elements within the Congress. The pervasiveness of this system, and its practical operation in changed votes, is told in detail by Stern, who also includes a table on the sources of income for every member in Congress.
Though Stern’s admirable spirits do not flag under the depressing tale he tells, and though he suggests reform (principally public financing for congressional as well as presidential races), he does not fool himself that the power of money can be more than partly checked. It was a reform effort, after all, that created the PAC monster by limiting individual contributions. Money works constantly to reduce the importance of the citizen who has nothing to offer a candidate but his or her vote.
But imagine that we could magically wipe out all PACs, lobbies, and influence buyers. Imagine that, in fact, the only thing people could give a candidate was his or her vote. Even then, according to the new book by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, money would be a principal determinant of the outcome, for the simple reason that Americans vote in rough measure according to the amount of money they have.
Why is this? The authors begin by addressing the problem of America’s abysmally low voting rate in general. They explore various reasons for this, dispelling certain myths about voter turnout in the nineteenth century. They do not seem to put as much emphasis as they should on our essentially accommodative two-party system. The governments with higher turnouts of voters are mainly of the parliamentary type, where the direct vote is for the legislature, in which small parties with articulated ideologies can play important roles in forming coalitions that choose the executive.
But the fact remains that this is not a government by the people (the actual citizenry) if it is chosen by only part of the people (little more than half in recent elections). Nineteenth-century voting figures were higher than ours—above 80 percent—but that was the vote of an elite, determined by restriction of the suffrage to male, largely white, non-transient, often tax-paying, literate members of established societies or machines. Today, among an equivalent elite, those making over $50,000 a year, the voting rate is still 76 percent. Among college graduates it is 79 percent. The more privileged in our society still vote in significant majorities. But of those making less than $5,000, only 38 percent vote. And of those with only a grade school education, only 43 percent. Comparative studies show that, in other governments, non-voting is not a necessary concomitant of lower income. Why is it in America?
Piven and Cloward argue that Americans have a history of discouraging parts of the populace from voting. Voting is treated as a privilege in our society, to be wielded by the privileged. Drives to turn out the vote are privately sponsored (and shaped by their sponsors’ assumptions). Government has traditionally made it hard to register and to vote. This continues to be true though we have removed some of the most obvious barriers (though only recently—in 1970, fourteen states outside the South still had literacy tests for voters).
Registration is not only an inconvenience but a cultural risk for many of the poor. Place and times of registration are not made to correspond with their community habits. Registration centers are often changed, poorly advertised, raggedly staffed. If a person makes one venture onto hostile terrain—e.g., to a police station across town—and finds the trip futile, how often will he or she try again? A voter’s change of residence requires a change of registration. The forms in many places are unnecessarily complex—e.g., requiring absolute consistency in the version of one’s name on the front and back (omitting a middle initial on one side can invalidate a form if the initial was used on the other side). Even where reforms have been adopted to reduce the obstacles to registration, a pattern of snags and resistance is discernible—e.g., shortages of forms, maldistribution of forms, sluggish processing of forms.
The authors of this book launched an experiment that gave them a sensitive listening post for the complaints of those who are harassed subtly or indirectly, even by people who do not know they are harassing them, when they try to register. In 1983, Piven and Cloward founded Human SERVE (Service Employees’ Registration and Voter Education) to help set up registration centers where the poor are—in human service posts like day care, welfare, food stamp, and unemployment centers. This program unmasked class attitudes that often go unspoken. State legislatures went into action against the program, and so did the Reagan administration. In 1984, Donald Devine of the federal Office of Personnel Management wrote to governors attacking the use of state employees to register voters at points where they were servicing citizens. Though a House committee investigated Devine’s ploy (which led to his resignation from office), state legislatures kept up an ingenious form of resistance. Political tactics were dictated by the assumption that only those who contribute financially to the state are proper voters. In this view the political right to vote does not rest on political need for the consent of the governed but on economic status within the governed.
The resistance Human SERVE ran into in the Eighties was prefigured in the lobbying around the Great Society legislation of the 1960s. As the debate went forward on the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, “Democratic and Republican mayors alike lobbied Congress for explicit prohibitions on voter registration activities by antipoverty agencies.” The distinction between the socially serviced and the self-governing was to be underlined, not minimized. Furthermore, some mayors and representatives in secure black districts supported that prohibition, not wanting incalculable new forces set loose in their structured political realms. Thus, even apart from ideological assumptions, there is a political inertia at work against introducing disturbing elements into the electoral process—and that means that the previously excluded (generally the poorer parts of society) will stay excluded as long as “politics as usual” is played at any of its multiple and interacting levels. The poor are not supposed to vote, and that message is conveyed to them in culturally subtle and not-so-subtle ways. George Will, for instance, has argued that increasing the number of voters will just increase the amount of ignorance brought to the maintenance of “good government” (i.e., government by the good or proper parts of society—an admission that ours is not a government by “the people” as a whole).
Piven and Cloward argue that voter activity must be “result-tested,” i.e., measured by the actual numbers of poor people who vote, since the states have, for two centuries now, been endlessly clever at setting standards that will appear fair according to the assumptions of the period but in fact have worked to exclude “undesirables” from the vote. Even the most apparently nondiscriminatory state reforms—e.g., postcard registration—can be and have been subverted by efforts against “fraud” that in fact return to the old procedures. West Virginia passed a law that would allow registration by mail—and then undid the results of that by requiring every registrant to appear before a notary public.
Abigail Thernstrom’s book is a learned and well-reasoned attack on result-tested voting procedures as these have been enforced by Congress, the Justice Department, and the Supreme Court. She accepts the 1965 Civil Rights Act as an emergency response to specific violations of black rights in southern states, though she reminds us that the act technically violated the Constitution by taking away the states’ prerogative of setting their own voting standards. She puts this in the same category of constitutional guarantees suspended in wartime. But this emergency power, which should have been used once, not as a precedent for further action but as specific to one geographically contained crisis, was then extended, at the very time when the occasion for it had disappeared. “By 1969 black registration in the South was dramatically on the rise; to a remarkable degree, the problem the statute had been designed to solve had been successfully attacked.” (Piven and Cloward argue that white middle-class registration also rose in the South during this period, leaving the disproportion in turnout between economic groups.)
In 1970, what Thernstrom says was falsely called an “extension” of the Civil Rights Act introduced brand new elements—legislating nationwide, not just for the South, a removal of the states’ “traditional freedom to set literacy qualifications for voting.” (Thernstrom, it will be seen, adopts the language of “freedom” for states as agents, like the language of states as having human “rights.”)