March 12, 2014

In 1991, Mitch McConnell Opposed Dark Money — While Openly Supporting Lower Voter Turnout

mitchmcconnellSenate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is in the political fight of his life, as he faces a capable Democratic challenger in Allison Grimes and a primary opponent in Matt Bevin.

In defending his incumbency, McConnell has gone outright elitist, telling the media that the establishment is going to “crush” tea party challengers across the country.

McConnell’s victory or loss, particularly in the general election where he is polling very tightly with Grimes, will likely depend on voter turnout. Historically, midterm elections have lower turnout, and higher turnout tends to benefit anti-incumbent waves and more progressive candidates — both of which is very bad for McConnell.

In the past few years, the proliferation of voter ID laws has threatened to drive down turnout due to disenfranchisement of racial minorities, students, the elderly, poor voters, and others who cannot easily obtain these IDs. Proponents of these laws have denied that this is the purpose of their purpose, and claim they have nothing against higher turnout.

In 1991, McConnell was much more open about his views about how many people actually vote in elections. During the Republican National Committee’s annual meeting that year, he explained his thinking:

MCCONNELL: You’ve read these periodic diatribes by various assorted columnists talking about voter turnout. I know this is heresy. Some of you may not agree with it. But I’m not particularly disturbed by lower turnout. I’d like it if everybody voted. On the other hand, I think it is rather healthy that to a large number of Americans, politics is not the central motivating factor in their lives. In their view they’ve got something more important to do. And they’re out there doing it. And to conclude that the nation is somehow going to hell in a handbasket because the turnout is 51 percent versus 52 percent, to me, is absurd. I’d rather have the people who care decide who wins. And I would also remind you that high voter turnouts typically occur in countries where democracy is new. Boris Yeltsin was in town last week and told us they had a 74% turnout. That’s good they haven’t had an election in a thousand years. No wonder, it was a novelty! Those who are ringing their hands with alarm always point to Central American countries on the turnout. You might be interested to know in most Central American countries you’re required to vote and you get fined if you don’t. It has a remarkable impact on turnout. In this country you’re free not to vote if you don’t want to. And to conclude that something is inherently wrong with America because to a great number of Americans politics is not their central preoccupation to me is an absurd conclusion. Most of those Americans out there are out making something happen and hoping that government will simply leave them alone.

There’s a lot to talk about here. First of all, it’s not actually true that turnout is high only in places where democracy is new. EU countries which have been democratic for decades happen to have some of the highest turnout rates.

Secondly, McConnell framed this issue to try to get conservative voters on his side by saying that if less people vote, it’s great because it’s some sort of desire for smaller government. But that doesn’t make any sense. If only five people voted, those five people could still be for turning the U.S. into the Soviet Union. Voting is a big part of making sure the government does what you want it to — whether you happen to be conservative, progressive, centrist, whatever. And it’s not necessarily a great sign to see less people involved in the process, or giving up on the process altogether because they think voting doesn’t make any difference. It’s a sign they think they government is actually out of control — their control.

Lastly, what he said reminds me a lot of what Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) says in the film American Blackout, which is a documentary about voter suppression in the early 2000’s. Here’s how he explains the thinking of elite politicians like McConnell:

SANDERS: The truth of the matter is that the media, large corporations, the people who control politically our country today do not want you to participate. They want a low turnout of primarily upper middle class people, they want big money to dominate the political process. Their nightmare is that young people, lower income people, working people jump into the process. They do not want that.

Also included in the video above are comments from McConnell dismissing public financing as some sort of conspiratorial plot by Democrats. Then he veers into implying that Republicans are completely transparent in the way they finance their campaigns. “When you pick up a finance report of a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, you’ve probably seen what was really spent in that race,” he intones, while claiming that a finance report from the Democrats may have only 40 to 60 percent of the spending due to the influence of “soft money.”

Recall that McConnell no longer says transparency is important — even going so far as to cynically claim that revealing donors to political candidates is akin to limiting “the right of Americans to speak up.”

As the Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal recently reported, operatives linked to Karl Rove have set up an undisclosed campaign organization called the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition to spend dark money to reelect McConnell.