Smith: Dark money, voter suppression, turnout threaten our democracy

In the midst of an outrageous election year dominated by rhetoric that overwhelms real news, it’s clear that our “democracy” has been stolen. Two threats to our democratic values demand our attention: restrictions on the right to vote and campaign finance laws that threaten the integrity of that vote.

To fight back against these threats and to demand a democracy that works for everyone, not just corporations and the wealthy, a dozen groups are hosting a rally at 1 p.m. on Sunday at the southwest corner of the Capitol, followed by a march down Congress Avenue and the creation of a living “dark money” sign on the Capitol walk. These activities are part of a national event called Democracy Awakening, in which thousands of Americans will gather at the nation’s capital to demand democracy reforms.

Our system for financing election campaigns has allowed billionaires and corporations to spend unlimited amounts of cash to influence our elections, threatening the fundamental ideal of our democracy. “One person, one vote” has been replaced by a new paradigm: “one dollar, one vote.”

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions, there is no limit to the amount of money that individuals or corporations can contribute to a super PAC or nonprofit organization to spending on behalf of or against a candidate. The Center for Responsive Politics has tracked $434,042,168 in donations to single-candidate super PACs so far in the 2016 election cycle. The identity of the donors of many of the millions being spent through nonprofit groups is kept hidden from disclosure. Such unlimited and often secret war chests create — at a minimum — the appearance of corruption, destroying the integrity of our elections.

At the same time, access to the ballot box is being curtailed. Twenty-one states have restrictive voting laws since 2010. According to reports in The Washington Post, “Texas has the most stringent voter-identification law in the nation … and one that could cut deeply into the turnout of minority voters and young people.”

Texas has 600,000 registered voters who don’t have the kind of photo ID needed to vote. Proponents argue such restrictions are necessary to counteract voting fraud, yet no evidence of widespread fraud exists. Critics contend they are designed to suppress participation in elections.

The Supreme Court has played a critical role in shaping the current state of democracy. Their decisions cleared the way for the massive amount of spending we now see flooding our elections. Thus, filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court has become critical for our democracy, especially as Texas has some very important cases pending before this court. The Congress must permit hearings on a replacement nominee to fill out the court so it can move forward and do its work.

Locally the issue of corporately funded elections is threatening our city’s right to require fingerprints from those who offer rides for money.

Nationally, more than 260 organizations will host teach-ins and a rally and march this weekend in Washington, D.C. as part of “Democracy Awakening.” Many will lobby members of Congress, urging them to support voting rights and money-in-politics reform measures.

More than 19 states and 650 cities have passed resolutions asking Congress to support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United – and Texans are coming together Sunday to demonstrate our support for these reforms. Threats to the right to and integrity of the vote – because of the corrupting influence of big money – demand action. The “Democracy Awakening” rally is a wake-up call to engage in our democracy as a first step toward fundamental reform. Attend and fulfill both the obligation and promise of citizenship. Learn more at

Tom “Smitty” Smith is the director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, a national consumer and environmental group active in issues concerning energy, environment, ethics and campaign-finance reforms.

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