A conservative group boasted about the kind of influence bought by massive political donations letting them literally write the laws.
LANSING, Mich.—This April, the Ingham County Board of Commissioners took a stand on a matter most people don’t think about on such a local level: money in politics. The commission voted unanimously on a resolution supporting the federal bill HR1 / S1, the For the People Act, which would reform laws nationwide that have allowed partisan groups and deep-pocketed donors to influence election outcomes.
At an event commemorating the formal filing of the resolution at the end of May, Hank Mayers of Michiganders for Fair and Transparent Elections (MIFTE) explained that the purpose of the resolution was to give voice to residents who called for an end to the dominant nature of big money in politics. The event came as local officials are ramping up their campaigns for the November election.
Political groups spent some $300 million in the 2018 midterm elections, as the Michigan Campaign Finance Network reported. And in the 2020 general election, WWMT broke down the massive price tags, including more than $40 million by outside groups on Michigan candidates in the U.S. Senate race.
While both political parties have contributed to the historic campaign spending numbers, Democrats are alone in nearly unanimously supporting attempts like HR1 to strengthen campaign spending regulations and the role of everyday Americans in elections.
As Ingham County commissioner Emily Stivers, who worked with MIFTE to develop their resolution, told local news media, “The foundation of our representative democracy is free, fair, and credible elections.”
This issue is a concern for Michiganders in cities big and small. Campaign finance records in Adrian, a rural city 80 miles southeast of Lansing, show political action groups (PACs) funded mayor Angela Sword-Heath’s last election. That funding made it harder for other candidates who did not have similar support to compete against her, according to other mayoral candidates who spoke to The ‘Gander, making her appear as a presumptive winner before voting even began.
Of course, this type of influence in elections goes beyond individual races. The outsized role of some political groups working behind the scenes to sway elections in their party’s favor includes the shaping of election laws as well.
Money Buys Access for Political Machines
Political action organizations often leverage their influence bought in campaign seasons to advance a certain policy agenda. And in some cases, that policy agenda is to limit the democratic functions of elections even more. Restricting voter access, for instance, reduces the potential for the voice of the people to be heard over the funds of the donors to an even greater extreme, and further empowers these groups.
In April, conservative political group and Heritage Foundation sister organization Heritage Action for America spoke to donors in Tucson, Arizona in a private meeting. A leaked video recording from the event revealed that Heritage talked about helping draft legislation for all states on issues like limiting access to ballot dropboxes, preventing the gathering of mail-in ballots, and giving partisan agents more influence over the election process.
These proposals made up large portions of the 39 bills Michigan Republicans introduced earlier this year aimed at making voting harder. Heritage, and other organizations like it, do more than advocate policies, though. They use their influence to even take the legislative pen from elected officials altogether.
“In some cases, we actually draft [bills] for them, or we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe,” said Heritage’s Jessica Anderson, as Mother Jones reported.
The latter strategy, making something authored by a political action group appear grassroots, has been a tried and true method in politics, employed to stunning effect by Republican-aligned groups like Heritage in the past. It even has a name playing on its false grassroots image: astroturfing.
And Heritage boasted about its successes with astroturfing, Mother Jones reported. Every Tuesday, the organization hosts a call with various branches with the larger conservative movement like the Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks.
“We literally give marching orders for the week ahead,” Anderson said, according to Mother Jones. “All so we’re singing from the same song sheet of the goals for that week and where the state bills are across the country.”
She went on to boast about how strong her organization’s influence is. When a voter suppression package came up in Georgia, Anderson claims she called that state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, and told him that if he even waited to sign it, even for an hour, it would make him look weak. Kemp signed it immediately after it passed.
Michiganders Fighting Against Big Money
The contents of the leaked Heritage video didn’t surprise Michigan advocates for voting rights. Progress Michigan’s executive director Lonnie Scott refuted the notion that Michigan Republicans introduced their voter restriction package out of genuine fear of voter fraud, as they had claimed. Rampant voter fraud is a widely debunked myth, both about the 2020 election and in general.
“We’ve known from the beginning that the GOP’s lies about our elections were nothing more than a cynical attempt to sow distrust and pave the way for anti-voter legislation,” said Scott. “The bill package being considered in the Michigan legislature, and similar efforts in other states, are simply bad-faith efforts to subvert our democracy [and] erode trust in our elections.”
There are ways to limit the influence of anti-democratic political action groups like Heritage. State Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown) has a host of ideas for improving government transparency in Michigan, and he’s in agreement with MIFTE’s aim of promoting the For the People Act.
The package of voter protections passed the House supported by Michigan’s seven Democratic representatives. It faces a serious challenge in the Senate, however, with a strong Republican opposition to voting rights being joined by conservative Democrat Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Camilleri says Michigan needs the For the People Act to both protect elections from being drowned in political action groups’ money and to protect voters from the anti-democratic policies some of those groups, like Heritage, are advancing.
“We cannot see the influence of corporations take over the influence of people,” he told The ‘Gander. “If we clean up our campaign finance laws, we then make it so that elections are about our ideas, not about who has the most money.”
And through efforts to get HR1 support growing on a community level, MIFTE is trying to make that happen. But, Mayers said, even more is in the works. MIFTE wants to introduce a ballot initiative in 2022 that would ask Michiganders to place firmer limits on the role of big money in our elections.
For Scott, this is a challenge to overcome by uniting Michiganders in just that sort of way.
“Michiganders believe in our democracy,” he said. “And we will come together once again across race, income level, and ZIP code to stand up for our voting rights.”