The super PACs and nonprofit groups dominating the 2012 election filed their latest financial disclosures with the Federal Election Commission. The reports showed that these outside groups -- some of which do not disclose any information about their donors -- are poised to continue playing an outsize role in this year's elections. Karl Rove's Crossroads groups, for instance, raised about as much in the first quarter of 2012 ($49 million) as they did during all of 2011. This breakneck fundraising pace will only accelerate as November approaches.
But this fundraising is not just affecting the ads we see on TV. It may also be having a troubling influence on voter attitudes toward our electoral process. According to a national survey conducted on behalf of the Brennan Center for Justice, 41 percent of Americans already say their vote does not matter because big donors to super PACs have so much more influence than they do. Alarmingly, nearly one in four Americans say they are less likely to vote because of the influence big donors have over elected officials.
This is nothing less than a crisis of confidence in the power of average citizens to effect change through the electoral process.
Yet super PACs are only one reason voters might disengage this November. Across the country, more than a dozen states have passed laws making it harder for eligible citizens to vote. Voter ID laws are the most common -- eight states have passed "no photo, no vote" laws since the last federal elections. Several others have adopted laws restricting registration drives, making it nearly impossible for groups like the League of Women Voters to register voters. All told, during the 2011-2012 legislative sessions alone, there have been 24 laws and executive actions restricting access to the polls. These new restrictions could make it harder for millions of Americans to vote in November.
Poorer communities and communities of color will bear the worst consequences of this year's new election law changes. The Brennan Center super PAC survey found that Americans with household incomes under $35,000 are much more likely than the general population to think their vote does not matter in the face of super PACs. That holds true for African-Americans and Latinos, too. Most voting law changes, like voter ID laws, also have their most pernicious effects on people of color. For instance, the Department of Justice recently noted that Hispanic registered voters in Texas are between 46 percent and 120 percent more likely than whites to not have a driver's license or non-driver's photo ID.
The combination of new campaign finance and voting law changes is almost certain to cause voter disengagement this fall, especially among those traditionally marginalized in our political process. Of course, this would not be the first time that America has had problems with voter turnout. In 2008, an election noted for its high turnout, there were still 75 million voting-eligible people who did not vote.
We need structural reform to the way we run our elections, and fast.
Congress can immediately make outside groups less potent by adopting meaningful rules to prevent coordination between candidates and the super PACs that function as shadow campaigns. But Congress can and should do more. Adopting a system of public funding for federal elections would make the voices of average voters matter as much as those of super PAC fat cats.
Modernizing our voter registration system is also long overdue. Registration-related problems have perennially been the biggest obstacle voters face each election season. In 2008, 80 percent of voting-eligible people who did not vote were not registered, and about three million more were prevented from voting because of problems with their registration. According to the Pew Center on the States, there are now 50 million voting-eligible Americans who are not registered.
To expand the voter rolls, Congress should require states to automatically register consenting eligible citizens to vote when they interact with any state agency -- and to provide a failsafe procedure to register voters who are left out. In states like Washington, Kansas, and South Dakota, automation has substantially increased the number of registered voters. States should also be required to provide online voter registration, a more convenient, secure, and cost-effective alternative to paper-based registration forms.
Congress alone cannot completely counteract the harmful effects of the new rules governing our elections. But in an election cycle where these rules threaten to undermine voter participation, Congress must act now to soften the blow.
Sundeep Iyer is a principal quantitative analyst with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.