Super-Thugs

In a New York Times op-ed, Progressive Policy Institute executive director Lindsay Mark Lewis and PPI senior fellow Jim Arkedis (disclosure: I’m a PPI senior fellow as well) put us all on notice about one of the implications of the advent of Super-PACs that hasn’t much been discussed: they are an ideal mechanism for election-day shenanigans, particularly money-driven voter suppression efforts.

This isn’t just something we dreamed up. For decades conservative groups have proven that voter suppression is cheap and effective: It cost just a few thousand dollars for Allen Raymond, a Republican operative, to make harrassing calls, jamming New Hampshire Democratic Party phone lines during the 2002 Congressional campaigns, for which he spent three months in prison; in 2006, the Republican National Committee paid for fliers in Virginia that told African Americans to “skip this vote;” Paul Schurick, an aide to former Republican Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich was convicted of using robocalls that told African Americans not to vote in 2010.

Should a super PAC get caught doing something like this, its legal separation from a campaign means the crime could never drag down a candidate or party. “Yes, I’m aware of the allegations against Cornering Our Future,” a candidate might explain, “but as you know, my campaign cannot coordinate its activities with a super PAC, so I consider the matter closed.”

And the candidate would be legally correct.

Lewis and Arkedis also note that the most famous recent incident of voter suppression, the 1993 New Jersey effort spearheaded by Ed Rollins on Christine Todd Whitman’s behalf, cost a grand total of $500,000. That’s a laughably small amount for a Super-PAC. Moreover, the people most likely to lavishly fund general election Super-PACs this year–say, the Brothers Koch–are the very same people who have spent lavishly to promote new “voter ID” laws aimed at reducing the number of ballots cast by poor and minority voters.

Looking at it from that perspective, it would almost be surprising if Super-PACs didn’t become election-day Super-Thugs. Lewis and Arkedis suggest we wake up:

Operating under the opaque protection of a super PAC’s plausible deniability, today’s political consultants probably won’t get in trouble, no matter what they do. As long as super PACs remain legal, they should be governed, at a minimum, by strict disclosure rules that allow the F.E.C. to follow the outflow from their accounts, not just the inflow. The dangers of super PACs and voter suppression need to be addressed today, not when its beneficiaries are running the government.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.