Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security on March 4th, 2011, with the goal of highlighting the importance of integrity in elections and democracy’s role in achieving a more secure, prosperous and stable world. As part of this mission, the 12 members of the commission released a report yesterday, titled “Deepening Democracy: A Strategy for Improving the Integrity of Elections Worldwide.” While the strategies developed are important for new democracies such as in Libya and Egypt, it also contains concerns of established democracies, in particular the United States.
What the report found was that the United States was in significant danger of failing to even be a democracy at all.
The first example they cite is in the continuing, targeted attack on minority voting rights. They point out the many legal and administrative issues which minority and poor voters have in the US. While these provisions are not specifically targeted, they disproportionately effect minorities and the poor. Examples they give include:
- Restrictions on voter registration
- New laws making it tougher to conduct voter registration drives
- Increased voter registration requirements
- The purging of voter files
- Disenfranchised due to felony conviction
- Voter identification requirements that make it harder for minorities to vote
- Decreased opportunities for early and absentee voting
- How minorities face longer wait times than white voters
- Stricter voter registration and identification requirements
They point out how many of these provisions are put in place under the claim that they are to combat voter fraud. Then the report discusses the lack of voter fraud within the United States, pointing out that in a decade long study less than 100 cases were found nationwide, making voter fraud a non-existent issue.
Later in the report, they focus heavily on political finance, and contain a large section dedicated to comparing/contrasting the United States against Canada in regards to the balancing between political speech and campaign finance reform, duplicated in its entirety here:
Two Approaches to Free Speech Considerations and Campaign Finance Reform: The USA and Canada
In recent years, several court decisions have gutted political finance reform in the USA. At the heart of these decisions has been the US Supreme Court’s insistence that campaign donations are free speech protected by the First Amendment of the US constitution. Such reasoning lay behind the Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, which overturned Congress’s Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and effectively
removed all barriers to corporate and union spending to influence federal, state and local elections.
Another ruling by a Circuit Court of Appeals, SpeechNow vs. Federal Election Commission, allowed individuals to
evade campaign contribution limits through so-called Super PACs. By law, such Super PACs must disclose their
contributors and may not coordinate directly with candidates. In practice, both constraints have been flouted.
Rich individual donors have donated tens of millions of dollars through shell organizations created to hide
the source of the money. Many experts believe that each side in the forthcoming 2012 presidential election will raise over 1 billion dollars.
Writing for the majority in the Citizens United case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that ‘independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption’. The American people disagree. A national opinion survey this year by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School showed that ‘nearly 70 per cent of Americans believe Super PAC spending will lead to corruption and that three in four Americans believe limiting how much corporations, unions, and individuals can donate to Super PACs would curb corruption’. More than threequarters of respondents agreed ‘that members of Congress are more likely to act in the interest of a group that spent millions to elect them than to act in the public interest’.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans say that they trust government less because big donors have more influence over elected officials than average Americans.
The Citizens United ruling has undermined political equality, weakened transparency of the electoral process, and shaken citizen confidence in America’s political institutions and elections.
Canada has faced many of the same campaign finance challenges that the USA has struggled with over the past decade. In contrast to the USA, Canada has managed to strike a balance between safeguarding individual speech and protecting the overall integrity of the electoral process.
Like the USA, Canada in the early 2000s imposed restrictions on the ability of third-party organizations like corporations and labour unions to spend directly on political campaigns. In a 2004 decision upholding these restrictions, the Canadian Supreme Court argued that the government had the right to restrict some political speech in order to promote other principles, like equality in the political process. Canadian courts have
consistently signalled that having greater wealth should not grant an individual or corporation a greater voice in politics.
In a section labelled “International Support for Democracy: Best Practice Begins at Home,” the paper points out that the regular behavior in established democracies translates to new democracies. If a democracy is practicing bad habits, then it in turn transfers these bad habits to other nations. The report discusses the flood of negative ads in to the United States electoral system, often times without any disclosure of who is behind the advertisements, saying “Such behaviour sends the message that anything goes with regard to political finance, and that moneyed interests are more important than elections with integrity.”
Due to the suppression of the minority voice in polls, and the rising influence of financial interests in our democracy, the United States is being viewed internationally less as a shining example of democracy, and more as a failing state.