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Electoral Fraud, Pure and Simple

The Brennan Center writes about presidential election advertising.

Published: November 1, 2000

Washington Post
November 1, 2000

Electoral Fraud, Pure and Simple
By E. Joshua Rosencranz

How can you cheat the federal government out of $ 68 million, flaunt it on television and get away with it scot-free? Easy: Run for president.

American taxpayers made a deal with George W. Bush and Al Gore. We agreed to spend $ 135 million to bankroll their presidential campaigns. We’re picking up the tab for these candidates, as we have for every major party candidate since 1976, in return for their promise to spend all their campaign time talking to America about the country’s future, not chasing after money at fundraisers attended by a handful of rich donors. Under the terms of the deal, they promised not to raise and spend a penny more from other sources.

We’re not getting the election we paid for. George W. Bush and Al Gore immediately broke their end of the bargain—and the law—by raising and spending truckloads of so-called “soft money,” funneling it through their parties and directing it mainly toward television ads promoting themselves and (more frequently) attacking each other.

How do they justify this money-laundering scheme? Through the transparent fiction that the parties are simply educating the public on issues rather than influencing the election. To be sure, the ads avoid certain words that refer directly to the election (such as “vote for” or “defeat"). And that, claim the candidates, makes them non-campaign ads and insulates the candidates from the charge that they are spending private money on their elections.

Nevertheless, the ads waddle, quack and smell like campaign ads. To voters watching television in their living rooms, there is no difference between the ads paid for by the candidates and those paid for by the parties with soft money raised by the candidates.

We have seen this brand of sophistry before, in the 1996 presidential race, when first Bill Clinton and then Bob Dole directed their parties to run ads on their behalf. But compared with this election, the 1996 irregularities were like jaywalking infractions. At least in 1996 both candidates paid lip service to the notion that they were not collaborating in the spending of soft money. Each pretended that the party was spending the money without consulting them. This year, all pretense has broken down.

Last month Bush proudly declared that he pulled the plug on a Republican Party ad he considered misleading. Absent from the self-congratulatory announcement was any hint of irony, as if Bush had no clue that he was not supposed to be in cahoots with the party in the first place.

More important, once the 1996 candidates accepted their bounty of federal funds ($ 63 million that year), they didn’t dare authorize the party to run soft-money ads. As Dick Morris testified in a Senate investigation, “there was a cut-off date of Memorial Day ‘96 after which all advertising had to come from the campaign.”

Not so now. Data collected by the Brennan Center for Justice, in collaboration with political scientist Kenneth Goldstein at the University of Wisconsin, show that party ads increased drastically over the course of the summer. Between June 1 and Oct. 24, the Republican and Democratic parties spent $ 67 million on ads, while the combined spending by the Bush and Gore campaigns was $ 49 million. The political parties are expecting to spend $ 120 million to promote their presidential candidates when all is said and done.

What we are witnessing is the largest election law fraud ever committed. Much of the soft money the presidential candidates are funneling through the parties is raised from sources—such as corporations and unions—that are not supposed to be influencing elections in the first place. To raise these enormous sums, the candidates and parties necessarily have to give something in return: preferred access to the candidates themselves or to high officials within the party who are in a position to dole out special benefits or carve out special breaks.

But most of all, we should be angry about how the fraud has hurt our election. The law governing presidential elections, enacted in 1974, acknowledged that the process by which we select a president occupies a special place in the civic life of the United States. The public funding received by presidential candidates is available to no other federal candidates. Every four years, we look to our presidential standard-bearers to lead a unique national discussion, and we ask them to focus single-mindedly on the campaign—without the distraction of raising money. Instead, in this campaign we have been treated to the spectacle of the presidential candidates racing from fundraiser to fundraiser, pulling in money hand over fist.

American taxpayers are paying for the presidential campaigns. It is time to demand that the candidates play by the rules—or give us our money back.

E. Joshua Rosencranz is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.