US midterm elections: The politics of ‘dark money’ and low voter turnout

The 2014 US midterm elections that were held on November 4 saw the opposition Republican Party scoop majority seats in the much coveted Senate and House of Representatives, gaining control since 2006.

What is the midterm election?
The midterm polls are held every two years after presidential elections. Federal offices that are up for election during the midterms include at least 34 of the 100 seats in the senate, as well as all 435 seats in the US House of Representatives.

The biannual elections are usually viewed as an indictment and measuring yard on the incumbent government’s performance. Trends show that over the past 21 midterm elections, the party of the incumbent president tends to lose ground. Also, the president’s party has lost an average 30 seats in the house, and an average four seats in the senate moreover, in only two of those has the president’s party gained seats in both houses.

President Barack Obama’s party was no exception as the Democrats lost key states such as Maryland, South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana, North Carolina, Iowa, Arkansas and Colorado to the Red Army.

According to Prof Robert Guttman, the director of the Center for Politics and Foreign Relations at George Mason University, Obama has been termed as a “lame duck” for his administration’s dipping popularity rates among Americans.
“Most Americans are angry — almost 70 per cent — about the way the country is going. That is bad because currently he has a 58 per cent disapproval rate. That is why most of the Democrat candidates distanced themselves from Obama during these elections, “Prof Guttman opines.

The Republicans on the other hand, Prof Guttman adds, rode on this unpopularity to gain fort in Capitol Hill. One of the issues at play was the health care policies, termed Obamacare, which, since its inception, has been vehemently fought against by the opposition party.

“We just added about 800,000 new people to our health care rolls so the state and individual taxpayers are paying for it, but within 10 years, a state like Kentucky has to fork this money, which is a financial burden.

Also, a lot of people have lost insurance due to health care reforms. This is untenable,” Mr Jim Stansbury, the executive director of the Jefferson County Republican Party notes.

Turnout in midterm polls
Popularity issues aside, the political parties were all banking on voter turnout to pull their political weights up. The midterm polls, taunted sometimes as “the elections about nothing”, are noted for having relatively low turnout.

This was no different as about 36.4 per cent of eligible voters turned out, according to the United States Election Project, the lowest overall in 70 years, which stood at 33.9 per cent in 1942.

Voter turnout during presidential elections is, as a rule, significantly higher. More than 58 per cent of eligible voters submitted ballots in 2012 and nearly 62 per cent did so in 2008. By contrast, only 41 per cent of eligible voters voted in 2010 and 40.4 per cent in 2006.

In April this year, the US supreme court, in a landmark judgement in favour of the rights of political donors, struck down limits on individual campaign contributions, ruling that federal caps on combined donations to candidates, parties and political action committees are an “unconstitutional infringement on free speech”.

This, according to political analysts, opened the floodgates to unlimited spending. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington group whose job is to track political spending, estimates that at least $4 billion (Shs11 trillion) was spent during the midterm elections, $40 million (Shs110 billion) more than what was spent in 2010.

Prof Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, says the popularisation of “dark money” — a term used to describe unaccounted for and untraceable money got by politicians — has turned American politics into a commercialised society, with corporations giving huge donations to candidates of choice.

“We apparently believe in free speech. I frankly think that when you amplify speech, you at least need to say who is doing the speaking. That is why I am so offended by this dark money. It is ridiculous if the source of money is anonymous. Who knows where it comes from?” Prof Cross questions.

Impact on Obama’s administration
While the world may look at these elections as one of those “insignificant” elections, it could be a tough two years for Obama’s remaining term in office.

With the Republicans holding fort, it is predicted to be a tall order for president Obama to, among other things, pass Bills seen to be favourable to the Democrats. Among these is a quest by Obama to issue an executive order to bring immigration reforms, through which a legal framework will defer deportation for millions of illegal immigrants.

Immigration reform aocates working with the administration on the expected executive action anticipate Obama will expand his policy of deferred deportation for undocumented children to their families, a move that may provide enforcement relief to as many as five million people.

However, if both sides do not seek compromise, as political analyst, Prof Merle Black from Emory University in Georgia aises, says it could stall debate and passing of laws on several issues, a gridlock situation that has erstwhile dominated work in Congress for the last two years.

Political parties sunk in these funds into campaign aerts, which also placed the media under the spotlight. The avalanche of negative aerts against opponents was the order of the day, with no legal road blocks that bar the media to air or publish the ads.

This is a far cry from Uganda’s case, where the Uganda Communications Commission could de-licence such media houses which engage in such campaigns aimed at personally discrediting political rivals.

With Uganda heading for elections in 2016, it could be a pointer on how the media can play its role in ensuring it projects issues and not personal agendas.

According to Ms Pat Murell, the president of the League of Women Voters of Louisville, Kentucky, the importance of the media in playing its civic role to educate voters on their voting rights and responsibilities, and not promote political Ping-Pong with candidates.

SOURCE: Daily Monitor

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