As the last leg of the midterm races begins this week, it serves as a reminder of how elections are much more than the opportunity to choose new political leaders. To be sure, the candidates that we vote into office matter, but the election season can also stoke debates that go much deeper – and have much more important ramifications – than a senate term.
What role does money play in politics and campaign funding? Is the voting process free of fraud and intimidation? To what extend should the federal government have the power to regulate campaign advertisements?
Just as in past elections, Watchdog.org stories have been driving many of these debates in 2014. For example, Watchdog.org contributor Paul Miller reported that a voting machine in Cook County, IL, was automatically marking votes for the Democratic candidate, even when voters repeatedly selected otherwise. The Cook County Clerk’s Office Deputy Communications Director said the machine was taken out of service and tested, and that it was found to have had a “calibration error.” The story was quickly picked by Drudge Report, scandalizing the country, and later Fox News and a number of other outlets.
Amazingly, Watchdog.org reporter Kenric Ward found almost the exact same thing happening in Maryland, as several voters reported that their “x” would not stay on the selection of the candidate they wanted to vote for. And again, the local election director chalked it up to a “calibration issue.” Ward’s story is particularly troubling for a state that already has some of the loosest election rules in the country and is seeking to “modernize” its online registration process. Under some of these newly proposed rules, Ward reported earlier, people would not have to show proof of legal residency to register to vote.
Election wars in Wisconsin
Voters could also have a hard time at the polls in Wisconsin, where Wisconsin Reporter’s M.D. Kittle reported that the Democrat-heavy City of Milwaukee Election Commission essentially banned a 78-year-old grandmother from doing her job as a poll observer. The commission’s executive director turned in Marguerite Ingold to the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, which she said they did because the election director believed should could have become “violent and stormed the city hall.” Yet by all accounts, Ingold is a professional, highly trained and well versed in the laws and procedures of elections and what observers can and cannot do. She is nothing more than a concerned citizen who takes her job seriously.
It seems she isn’t alone, however. In a subsequent story, Kittle reported that the Republican Party election observers monitoring in-person absentee voting at Milwaukee’s largest polling place say partisan election officials are shutting them out. And this all comes from an election commission that is pushing a policy that would keep election observers farther away from voters. Poll watchers have complained that these new rules would make observation impossible.
Meanwhile, other journalists at Watchdog.org’s Wisconsin Reporter have had their own difficulties covering the tight gubernatorial race between Governor Scott Walker and his Democrat opponent, Mary Burke. Earlier this month, the Burke campaign barred reporter Adam Tobias from attending a campaign event that featured first lady Michelle Obama. Once again, Drudge Report picked up the story, and free press advocates across the country cried foul.
On the money-in-politics front, Watchdog reporter and union-money whiz Jason Hart has found that labor unions have poured tens of millions of dollars into political and lobbying expenditures. The Labor union coalition AFL-CIO, for instance, spent more than $30 million on politics during the past year, all by shoveling money taken from workers to big-government groups across the country. And that figure does not even include the $4.8 million in AFL-CIO payments to political nonprofits that were reported as “Contributions, Gifts and Grants” or “Representational Activities.”
In another story, Hart found that the American Federation of Teachers alone reported $24.9 million in political and lobbying expenditures during its most recent fiscal year. Like AFL-CIO, that figure almost certainly understates the true extent of AFT’s influence.
“Considering that most of AFT’s members are public-sector workers,” Hart noted, “essentially all AFT activities are political.”
Hart’s stories line up with Watchdog.org reporter Eric Boehm’s story from last February about how the biggest benefactors from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling were labor unions – not conservative mega-donors as many people assume. Many liberals decried the court’s ruling loosening federal rules for political spending, but it appears to have benefited Democrats more than Republicans.
Boehm’s story is a prime example of what Watchdog.org strives to do: Counter the unquestioned narrative of establishment media with local, fact-based stories that otherwise would go untold. We believe that voters need and deserve the stories that expose questionable voting practices, shine the light of transparency on money in politics, and call out candidates when they show press favoritism or misconstrue the facts.