American Democracy Challenged: JSPAN Programs on Gerrymandering and Campaign Finance

JSPAN Executive Director Rabbi George Stern

In 2014, $174 million in “dark money” flowed into political campaigns. Experts expect double that in 2016. Marco Rubio has spent almost none of the money he has raised on TV ads, but airwaves have been filled with ads paid for by dark money, much of it under the control of his former aides. Such disturbing facts were but a small part of a recent JSPAN-sponsored presentation by Dick Polman, a local journalist who has made it his business to track money spent by “social welfare organizations” with 501(c)(4) status. Restrictions on their expenditures, such as bans on direct political activity, are poorly enforced if at all - in part because they are vaguely worded. One thing is for sure: 501(c)(4)’s are under no obligation to reveal the sources of their income, so we never know who is behind their ads or other activities.  

According to journalist Chris Satullo, unlike 501(c)(4)’s, corporations must reveal their donors. So they set up dummy corporations whose expenditures cannot be easily traced.  The net result is that people, especially very wealthy ones, can advance their specific agendas anonymously and thereby skew the political landscape.  Reversing the Supreme Court’s decisions would be well-nigh impossible, requiring a Constitutional Amendment that is highly unlikely. The best we could hope for, and it would surely be helpful, would be laws requiring disclosure of donations, which the Court has hinted it would accept. At this point, however, there are no such bills on the horizon. 

The campaign finance landscape, turned upside down by Supreme Court rulings of the past five years, was one of two overarching challenges described by presenters at the second of JSPAN’s programs on “American Democracy Challenged.”  The other issue was gerrymandering, discussed by Senator Daylin Leach and Ken Myers, Interim President of Common Cause PA. The effect of recent gerrymandering, carried out using sophisticated databases, is not simply districts that look like amoebas or Rorschach tests; the worst result is the creation of districts that protect incumbents by drawing lines that ensure supermajorities of one party or the other (at this point, mostly Republicans). Thus in Pennsylvania in 2014, though Democrats garnered 53% of the overall Congressional vote, they won only 5 of 18 seats in the Federal House. A similar, though less blatant, effect occurred in State House races. When elections are essentially determined in advance simply by district lines, the incentive to vote is reduced, including for state-wide and national races that are in fact competitive.

In Pennsylvania, there is some hope that pressure will build to effect a change in the way districts are realigned after each census. Senate Bill 484, sponsored by Democrat Lisa Boscola and with 9 co-sponsors (two of whom are Republicans), is slowly making its way through the legislative process. It would set up a non-partisan commission to redraw lines after the 2020 census and thereafter. The “ace in the hole” for supporters of the bill is the recent PA Supreme Court election, in which Democrats—who are more likely to support a nonpartisan system—took control. Under current law, the Court has a role to play in determining whether a redistricting plan meets the minimal standards of fairness, and can take over the process under certain circumstances. Some say that the threat of Court action might convince enough legislators that the time has come to fix the system once and for all. Readers of this article—especially those living in Republican districts—are urged to consider contacting their State Senator to express support for SB 484, which you can read here:

JSPAN is proud to have sponsored this program and an earlier one featuring former Representatives Martin Frost (D-Texas) and Tom Davis (R-Virginia), co-authors of The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis. Your support of our work makes programs like this possible.