Elections can be ‘rigged’ – just not the way Porter or Trump suggest

Rep. Katie Porter’s parting comments after her failed bid for U.S. Senate have been widely and appropriately denounced. Calling the primary race “rigged” was ill-tempered and immature, and it helped reassure those who voted against Porter that they were entirely justified for having done so. 

She later apologized, sort of, acknowledging during an interview on “Pod Save America” that she “obviously” wished she had “chosen a different word.” 

Yet she did have a point.

No, the election was not “rigged” in the way that former President Donald Trump disparages any election he loses. There were no unfounded allegations of voter fraud or tampering with voting machines. There were no fabricated conspiracies involving Italian interference as Trump supporters claimed the same day thousands stormed the U.S. Capitol. 

It was a clean primary that Rep. Adam Schiff won and former baseball star Steve Garvey managed to advance in thanks to Schiff’s help.

That’s not a rigged election. That’s how elections work. Porter’s inability to find a lane, to connect with voters, to perform at the debates or to offer a convincing message were textbook examples of another aspect of elections: Bad campaigns lose.

Still, American elections, including those in California at the state and local levels, often become exercises in influence as much as they are contests of ideas or candidates. In that bigger sense, our elections are, indeed, rigged – just not the way that either Porter or Trump contends.

The roots of this particular political crisis date to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1976, when the court held in Buckley v. Valeo that spending on behalf of candidates and causes (separate from direct contributions to candidates) was protected speech and could not be regulated by the government. 

That’s a shaky, though not crazy, idea. But its implications have reverberated through American politics ever since, amplified by the better-known case in 2010, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

As UC Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky wrote a decade ago, the effect of those rulings has been to clear the way for deep-pocketed interests to exercise sweeping influence. 

“When corporations and the wealthy can spend unlimited sums of money – as they now can – they have the ability to drown out other voices and create a political system that is stunningly unequal,” he wrote in 2014.

Bob Stern, who authored state campaign finance laws and helped create the Fair Political Practices Commission in the 1970s, was one of the many Californians that bristled at Porter’s comments. He felt “frustrated” was a better word than “rigged.”

Stern and many other campaign reform advocates are frustrated that the court, by having equated speech with contributions, has erected an edifice of inequality that favors money over ideas and incentivizes corporations, unions and the wealthy to spend money on campaigns to protect their interests. 

There are efforts, in California and elsewhere, to tackle that problem. Some areas are experimenting with ranked-choice voting, others scoping out ideas such as campaign contribution vouchers that would allow voters to steer money to campaigns. 

But the court has, at least for now, blocked the most obvious solution: Capping spending by any entity – humans, unions, corporations, committees – on candidates or causes. Under those circumstances, Stern lamented, “There is no good solution.”

This is not a partisan question, nor purely a federal one. Elections in Los Angeles, for instance, largely turn on the support of organized labor, which has a deep interest in the outcomes of local races since the winners will consider contracts for government workers and set policies – the local minimum wage, to cite just one – that shape working conditions. 

So labor in L.A. does exactly what one would expect: Groups spend money and use their influence to shape elections – even to draw district lines, as the infamous backdoor conversation between Los Angeles council members and labor leaders in 2021 highlighted. 

For those seeking ways to curb some of those excesses, a first step is disclosure. Requirements that force PACs and others to reveal the sources of their money at least let voters take that into account when considering an attack. 

“More disclosure would be good,” Stern noted, though he conceded that even that “is not ideal.”

After all, disclosure merely makes information available. It doesn’t mean much unless voters take advantage of it, and it sometimes comes too late for candidates to make an issue of it.

That was part of Porter’s beef with the March primary, when a contingent of wealthy crypto and tech magnates spent millions of dollars on ads criticizing her – precisely the type of political involvement that Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United sanctioned. Porter called it “an onslaught of billionaires” who had contributed to Fairshake, a PAC that says it “supports candidates committed to securing the United States as the home to innovators building the next generation of the internet.” 

Again, though, she chose the wrong example to make an important point. Yes, billionaires – along with other wealthy interests – have too much sway over our politics. Yes, some of the ads Fairshake bought came late in the campaign, but they didn’t move the needle much. Porter entered the race behind Schiff, stayed behind him the whole way and then sputtered as Schiff cleverly aired ads warning of Garvey’s conservatism. 

“Big money makes a difference,” Stern said. “But in this case, I don’t think it made much of a difference.”

It was Schiff’s ads that altered the structure of the race. The ads cleverly raised Garvey’s profile in the guise of criticizing him, and they pushed him past Porter, just as Schiff had hoped they would. The result is that Schiff now has an easy path to victory in November against a former first baseman whose knowledge of politics is so thin that it’s hard not to wince when he talks. 

Porter was understandably upset to lose to such a laughable candidate – but that’s politics, not a rigged election. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

Trump has commandeered the word “rigged,” and Porter’s use of it is what set off alarms. But Trump wields it selectively and self-servingly, as he does all things. The Senate race was no more “rigged” against Porter than the criminal justice system is “rigged” against Trump.

If our politics are rigged, they are rigged in favor of money. That’s worth addressing.

Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics.

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