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Vote buying in Cambodia? What about lobbying in the USA?

By: Norbert Klein Posted: February-08-2012 in
Norbert Klein

The Phnom Penh Post had reported on 31 January 2012:

A Cambodian People’s Party member found guilty of attempted vote-buying in last Monday’s Senate election had been let off too lightly with a fine and should face legal action, an opposition Sam Rainsy Party councilor said yesterday.

At a hearing of the Battambang Provincial Election Commission last week, CPP member Cheam Pe A was fined US$1,230 after he was caught on tape offering SRP Tuol Ta Ek commune councilor Mok Ra $700 to cast his vote for the ruling party.

Vote buying is bad – hardly anybody will defend it openly, though it is probably being done a lot – and not only in Cambodia.

But I also want to try to understand what its means and how it has to be considering what is at present being reported almost every day about the primaries of the Republican Party in the USA – and the huge amounts of money being spent. And this is only part of the procedures to determine who will be the candidate of this party during the next US presidential elections, to be held on Tuesday, 6 November 2012.

There have been several attempts in the USA trying to restrict the influence of money on politics. And I will also provide some information about the “First Amendment” - an important addition to the Constitution of the USA.

In response to corruption scandals in 1998 in the state of Arizona, there had been state regulations to control campaign finance and to minimize the effect of private money on elections.

But in 2008, the Supreme Court of the United States of America restricted such attempts, striking down the so called "Millionaires Amendment" in a court case, and providing First Amendment protections for personal contributions made for a candidate.

In 2011, the Court further restricted methods of campaign finance restrictions, striking down a public financing system. - In a number of democratic countries, election campaigns are financed by public funds, being made available to all, also to small political parties with a public standing, under certain clearly defined conditions.

The Supreme Court of the United States of America ruled, however, that to restrict financial donations for political purposes would be a restriction of the freedom of speech, arguing that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech.

To understand the context - though this does not mean to understand the court's decision itself – a brief reference to the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, which was adopted in 1787 and ratified in 1788, may be useful.

Soon after that, during the years 1789 to 1791, the widely shared notion of important missing elements lead to the adoption of several amendments to the Constitution – the first ten of them were combined as the Bill of Rights - to guarantee certain personal freedoms, and to limit the government’s power by obliging it to be under this legislation. The First Amendment merits to be quoted in full here, as it is often instrumental in finding basic legal orientation.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

But while it is a basic constitutional guideline, its meaning is also often fundamentally contested, as can be seen in a 2010 ruling on political financing, which was passed only by a 5 to 4 majority of judges of the Supreme Court.

John Paul Stevens, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the USA from 1975 until his retirement in 2010. At that time he was the oldest member of the Court. He published his legal opinion – against the opinion of the majority, from which I quote:

At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense...

And as Justice William Brennan wrote in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan in 1964, the First Amendment provides that “debate on public issues … [should be] … uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

However, Americans vigorously dispute the application of the First Amendment.
Most people believe in the right to free speech, but debate whether it should cover flag-burning, hard-core rap and heavy-metal lyrics, tobacco advertising, hate speech, pornography, nude dancing, solicitation and various forms of symbolic speech.

The New York Times had reported about two years ago, on 21 January 2010:

Justices, 5-4, Reject Corporate Spending Limit

WASHINGTON — Overruling two important precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, a bitterly divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.

The 5-to-4 decision was a vindication, the majority said, of the First Amendment’s most basic free speech principle — that the government has no business regulating political speech. The dissenters said that allowing corporate money to flood the political marketplace would corrupt democracy.

The ruling represented a sharp doctrinal shift, and it will have major political and practical consequences. Specialists in campaign finance law said they expected the decision to reshape the way elections were conducted...

President Obama called it “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

The Cambodia Daily had, on 7 February 2012, Tom Toles' political cartoon from the Washington Post "Game is Over" – presenting in simple language what this Supreme Court's decision, passes with the narrowest possible margin, and heavily criticized by an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, as “a rejection of the common sense of the American people.”

Corporations are people. – Money is speech. [Click on the picture to enlarge it]

"Corporations are people." – "Money is speech." [Click on the picture to enlarge it]

During the present primaries to identify the candidate of the Republican Party who will face the current president, Barack Obama, as the candidate of the Republican Party huge amounts of money are spent during the competition between different candidates of the same party. One can assume, that even bigger amounts will be spent to buy votes against Barack Obama – no, this is not called vote buying, this is just that the money of individuals and of corporations is considered to be free speech.

Special structures in this environment are Political Action Committees (PACs).

As a super PAC the organization can raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions and other groups, as well as wealthy individuals. Speaking in character, Colbert [the creator of one of these PACs] said the money will be raised not only for political ads, but also "normal administrative expenses, including but not limited to, luxury hotel stays, private jet travel,..."

As the following figures show, PACs use money to support a candidate with staff, television ads, special meetings, etc. - or, as Mr. Colbert said - by providing luxury hotel stays. But PACs spend also a lot of money to attack competitors.

I cannot follow this argument – I can only share some information which is available in the media. The following was downloaded on 7 February 2012 at 22:45, Phnom Penh time; to click on the pictures will enlarge them.

US Republican Party Primary updates...

When Newt Gingrich seemed to rise in popularity, Mitt Romney's PAC friends spent a lot of funds to attack Gingrich – and Mitt Romney had an impressive gain in popularity. That is how big money translates into free speech and then leads to success in elections? That is how democracy works – the one-person-one-vote system?


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