The premise seems simple. Candidates file to run for office and campaign for support. Voters decide which of those candidates will best represent them and then fill out a ballot.
The reality, of course, is more complicated than that. And even a primary election can demonstrate the need for election reform in the United States.
As The Seattle Times reports, “A deluge of outside PAC money is saturating two of Washington’s top congressional primaries.” One of those is in the 3rd Congressional District, where Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, is seeking a seventh term in the House of Representatives.
In recent weeks, $1.9 million has been spent to influence voters before the Aug. 2 primary. One political action committee, Conservatives for a Stronger America, has spent $1.4 million on TV and radio ads and mailers attacking Republican candidate Joe Kent.
The Columbian’s Editorial Board has recommended votes for Herrera Beutler or Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez in the primary. This is because they are strong candidates — and because Kent, who has run a high-profile campaign, is a dangerous alternative.
Kent has echoed Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 presidential election being fraudulent and has courted white nationalists for support. He represents a fringe element that attempted to overthrow American democracy in January 2021.
Yet we can oppose Kent’s candidacy while still decrying the late-race electioneering that reflects vast shortcomings in the American election system. Conservatives for a Stronger America, for example, timed its spending to avoid disclosing its donors until weeks after the primary.
According to OpenSecrets, which tracks campaign spending, pop-up super PACs spent nearly $40 million nationally during the 2020 primary cycle. “The advantage of getting involved in that way is that if people were to know who you were, it would discredit your messaging,” an OpenSecrets representative told The Seattle Times. “By the time you see meaningful disclosure the election is over.”
Opaqueness in campaign spending belies the very meaning of American democracy. And it can be traced, in part, to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That decision cleared the way for corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections.
As the Brennan Center for Justice explains: “The ruling has ushered in massive increases in political spending from outside groups, dramatically expanding the already outsized political influence of wealthy donors, corporations, and special interest groups.” As one report from the nonpartisan center details, “the decision has helped reinforce the growing sense that our democracy primarily serves the interests of the wealthy few, and that democratic participation for the vast majority of citizens is of relatively little value.”
That growing sense is not limited to Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. Nor is it constrained to the state’s 4th Congressional District, where similar pop-up PACs have dropped more than $1.5 million into a race where Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, is seeking reelection.
But Washington has become a focal point in the unraveling of American democracy. Persistent threats to voting accessibility and lies about election security are eroding public faith in the system. Big spending by unknown influencers only adds to the sense of insecurity.