Buying Votes

In his most recent commentary for Recoil Magazine, contributor Jeff Smith shows how wealthy individuals and corporations have a disproportionate amount of influence in the electoral process.


My favorite comedian in the world died recently. George Carlin, the free speech pioneer, died of a heart attack at the age of 71. I liked Carlin from early on, since he not only had the ability to find humor in the mundane, he also wasn’t afraid to inject a sharp political analysis into his routines. In fact, a devastating critique of religion, economics, war and the environment became the focus of his stand up comedy, especially in the past 10 years.

In a piece he was doing on white people and Blues music, Carlin says, “White people have no business playing the blues, ever.” He then goes on to say, “What White people have to realize is that it is their job to give people the blues, not to play it.” Some people might take offense at such an analysis, but as Carlin would say, “Fuck um.”

Carlin was particularly critical of our democracy and the electoral process. In a stand up routine he did just before the 2004 election (although it would fit any election year), he made the observation that “this country was bought and paid for a long time ago. Big corporations and rich people own this country and they own the politicians.” This sort of a comment might also turn people off, especially those who continue to think that the US operates as a healthy, functioning democracy. So, lets explore that idea a bit, especially since we are just a few months away from the presidential election.

To continue on the same line of thinking that Carlin has left us, on how elections are bought and paid for, here is an excerpt from Title 18, Section 11, Subsection 201 of the US Federal Criminal Code Statute entitled “Bribery of Public Officials.” It states:

“Whoever directly or indirectly, corruptly gives, offers or promises anything of value to any public official with intent to influence any official, or, being a public official, directly or indirectly, corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally or for any other person or entity, in return for being influenced in the performance of any official act, is guilty of bribery and is subject to 15 years in prison.”

Now, I am not a lawyer, but the way I read that statute is that people who try to buy votes or political influence is guilty of bribery. Seems kind of odd since our political system pretty much runs on the influence of money. Maybe the Justice Department is short on personnel who could enforce the “Bribery of Officials” statute, or maybe they are just overwhelmed with where to start.

In the 2004 election, the Bush and Kerry camps raised over half a billion dollars to decide who would be president. That amount of money was surpassed in April of this year in part because of the hotly contested primary race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. If you add up the amount of money raised by all presidential candidates, even those who have dropped out, the amount in mid July has reached one billion. Obama leads the way having already raised $287,397,945.00. This breaks all records for money raised by a presidential candidate and we still have 3 months until Election Day.

At this point some will say, “yeah, but Obama is only getting his money from regular folks, not the big rollers.” While it is true that there are people who are making $25 contributions to the Senator from Illinois, most of his money is still coming from wealthy individuals and corporate sectors. In looking at the online source, you will find that the number one contributor to the Obama campaign is Goldman Sachs with over $600,000 in donations so far. Other big contributors include JP Morgan Chase & Co., General Electric, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Time Warner, Microsoft, Google, and the nuclear power company Exelon Group.

So, let’s say you give $25 and the financial giant Citigroup gives $371,000, which do you think Obama is likely to pay more attention to when he makes policy decisions? Of course Citigroup has also already given McCain $249,251 as of mid July, since these groups are always want political access no matter who occupies the White House. They always hedge their bets on both of the front-runners, since that is a smart bet in the world of electoral politics. This is generally the norm, with a few exceptions for those groups or individuals that are more ideologically driven.

A good example of how wealthy individuals will give money to both the Democrats and Republicans was recently on display locally. In June, Grand Rapids real estate developer Sam Cummings hosted two big fundraisers. It was announced in early June that Cummings would host a benefit for current City Commissioner Roy Schmidt who is running as a Democrat for the State House seat that will be vacated by Mike Sak. Two weeks later, it was reported that Cummings was hosting a major fundraiser for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Cummings understands that in order to protect his interests he will back those who will best represent those interests. He supports a Democrat in a local race, since that seat has been held by a Democrat for more than 20 years, so he places his bets with a sure winner to guarantee his interests will be looked after.

I’m not trying to be cynical here, just honest about how his all works. The idea of one person, one vote is a nice idea, but it is just that, an idea. And don’t expect the news media to do much investigation of the role that money plays in electoral politics. First, why would they question a system that they also make tons of money off of? Where do you think the bulk of those millions of dollars the candidates raise ends up? Most of it is spent on paid political ads convincing us how wonderful the candidates are or how awful their opponent is. This means that the broadcasters are pocketing a ton of money, so they have no real incentive to question nor report on how money influences elections. Secondly, why would they want to report on this when they only have time to cover the really important issues in an election.

On July 10, Michelle Obama was in Detroit and the Grand Rapids Press reported on what Governor Granholm had to say at that visit. “Gov. Jennifer Granholm said one of the few differences between herself and first lady-hopeful Michelle Obama is fashion sense. ‘I will not show my arms in public.'” And, on July 9, the Press ran a story about a recent poll and found that dog lovers are more likely to vote for McCain. Now that is some goooooood reporting.

So, while you are being carpet bombed with ads and news and conversation about the presidential race, try to keep in mind the role that money plays in politics and take some advice from George Carlin when he says, “I got this moron thing I do….it’s called thinking!”

Jeff Smith will continue to be monitoring the elections and election coverage until November 2. Check out the regular analysis on and show a little kindness during this painful process.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media //