Election 2012 underway in violation of international commitments

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, right, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, grill pork at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa

This weekend’s “straw poll” in Iowa offered voters not an intelligent policy debate or cogent alternatives to the Obama administration’s policies, but rather, a stark reminder of just how mindless and inane the unfolding presidential campaign will be. As Frank Bruni astutely writes at the New York Times,

[Mitt] Romney went to the state fair on Thursday and donned a red apron to grill pork, because grilling pork is of course a vital part of being commander in chief. He also made remarks from a makeshift stage with bales of hay in the foreground. Bales of hay seem to emerge out of nowhere and creep into the camera frame whenever politicians touch down in farm states, where those politicians tend to talk like they’re on “Hee Haw.” Over several days I heard Romney say “sure as heck,” “fella” and “darn well.” I half expected him to take a pitchfork to that hay.

Rick Perry wasn’t around, but that didn’t preclude a constant discussion of him, my favorite bit of which was a CNN segment in which it was revealed that his father-in-law had performed his vasectomy. I’m not sure where on the spectrum of family values that falls or why voters need to know it.

If politicians exhibited some silliness in Iowa, so did reporters. Like hounds heeding a whistle, they swarmed to Sarah Palin when she dropped by the state fair on Friday, again rewarding her coyness about the presidential race with extra-rapt attention. She dithers; we drool.

She was asked if the president was to blame for the nation’s credit downgrading, and said yes. “Because from the top, leadership starts from the top, the leadership of our country,” she said, syntactical as ever.

She was also asked if she was looking for votes. “I’m looking for fried butter on a stick and a fried Twinkie as soon as I can get there,” she said. She deserves as much. And we deserve something much, much better.

Bruni certainly has a point — that with all of the problems facing the country and the world, Americans deserve better than goofy stump speeches, negative and misleading TV ads, and vacuous commentary from political pundits over the next 14 and a half months. With so many Americans on the left, right and center thoroughly disillusioned by the disappointments of the Obama era, an intelligent debate on genuine policy alternatives would be much more useful than the usual fare of hokey campaigning and mudslinging.

But the bigger point is that we deserve better than a bought-and-paid for two-party system that falls short of international commitments on free and fair elections. The sort of lowest-common-denominator campaigning on display in Iowa last week is simply the natural result of a media culture dominated by big money and professional Madison Avenue campaign managers who understand that the dynamics of selling a president to the American people is fundamentally no different than selling toothpaste. It’s all about branding.

In a system such as ours, with only two parties to choose from — both of which agreeing on some of the most fundamental issues of the day — the voters have nowhere else to go, and therefore the calculation to be made by presidential hopefuls is simple. All that candidates need to do is convince enough people through negative advertising to vote against the opponent (or simply stay home), and/or to convince enough people to vote for you, usually through misleading ads that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

In recent years, candidates have come to increasingly rely on private money to get their message out through paid political advertising, pushing away the traditional media and inhibiting the ability of journalists to report objectively on campaign activities. As McClatchy Newspapers reported prior to the congressional midterm elections in 2010,

Many major candidates are treating the news media as enemies this year, refusing to release schedules, admit the press to campaign events, give interviews or answer routine questions. …

Shutting out reporters could compromise voters’ ability to get fair accounts of who candidates and their financial backers are and where they stand, leaving them dependent instead on propaganda packaged by the candidates and their supporters.

“It’s only going to spread, and it’s not a good thing for our democracy, if we’re going to hold candidates accountable,” said Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University.

Just prior to the 2010 midterms, PolitiFact, a non-partisan research group that provides independent analysis of claims in political advertising, reported that, “Ads from ‘Super PACs’ and other political groups … are overwhelmingly spreading exaggerations and falsehoods.”

Of 31 claims in television advertisements that PolitiFact examined from groups such as American Crossroads and the Patriot Majority PAC, the vast majority were deemed untruthful. “Forty-two percent earned a Half True [rating], 23 percent Barely True and 13 percent were found to be False or Pants on Fire, the rating reserved for the most ridiculous falsehoods,” the watchdog group said. In other words, 78 percent of the ads were misleading to one degree or another.

Largely due to the vast campaign spending in 2010 and the spreading of disinformation by political candidates, the election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) described a “dirty campaign environment” with “money playing a significant role in creating an uneven playing field between candidates.”

“Upwards of four billion dollars were spent on the campaigns, making it the most expensive mid-term election in the United States to date,” the OSCE PA noted. “About three-quarters of that money was spent on political campaign ads on television and radio. The ads inundated the airwaves, made huge profits for many television and radio stations, and also turned off many voters.”

The international observers also highlighted the undemocratic nature of the two-party system, in which third parties are effectively barred from participating in the electoral process.

“Ballot access laws continue to pose a challenge to ‘third party’ candidacies,” the OSCE PA stated.

While the Democrat and Republican parties are virtually  guaranteed ballot access in all 50 states in every election, ‘third parties’ often need to meet  difficult  criteria  in order to get on the ballot, such as registration fees or, in many states, petition requirements in which a large number of voters must sign a petition for a third party or independent candidate to gain ballot access.

Other issues identified by international observers in previous U.S. elections include the lack uniform standards in the electoral system, which “creat[es] vulnerabilities in the system, particularly with regards to the integrity and complexity of voter registration, voter identification, and electronic voting machines.”

Further, “ballot design in many states was seen as overly complicated and proved at times to slow down the voting process.” In the 2004 presidential election, the OSCE concluded that “the way in which election administrators are appointed may raise questions of possible conflict of interest, in particular when election officials run for office or act as campaign managers.”

“Allegations of electoral fraud and voter suppression, primarily among minorities, were widely reported and presented to the EOM in the pre-election period,” the OSCE noted. “The observers expressed concerned that the widespread nature of these allegations may undermine confidence in the electoral process.”

Many of the issues identified by international observers remain unaddressed, while others, such as the corrupting influence of money in campaigns, only get worse. While commentators like Frank Bruni are justified in lamenting over the sorry group of candidates that the voters are forced to choose from, and the fatuous style of electioneering we are forced to endure, in many ways, the problems are much deeper than that.

Until the deeper issues of electoral reform are addressed, U.S. elections will likely continue to be a meaningless exercise in Madison Avenue product packaging and manipulation of voters. Reforming this system is both vital for true democracy in America, and to ensure that the United States lives up to its international commitments.


About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/compliancecamp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/compliancecamp Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at] gmail.com.

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