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Rich Americans Are Interfering in Our Elections

Amazon's efforts to manipulate Seattle's city council race show that wealthy individuals and companies are threats to democracy.

Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

Imagine this: One of the largest companies in Russia and the world, with billions of dollars in contracts with the Russian government, dumps $1.5 million into an American local election with the intent to shape the outcome to be more favorable to its interests. It donates or spends this money on the candidates it knows will vote for policies that keep its taxes low. We would have to imagine that the disclosure of such a scheme would touch off outrage, congressional hearings, wall-to-wall coverage on MSNBC and CNN, perhaps even special counsel investigations or the sanctioning of elected officials. It would dominate news cycle after news cycle.

Before you fire up Twitter and sound the dezinformatsiya alarm, this did not happen. What did happen is that Amazon, headed by the world’s richest man and armed with $230 billion in revenue last year, spent $1.5 million on an attempt to mold the outcome of the Seattle city council election. The effort wasn’t particularly successful—their candidates failed to win a majority—but the company may have succeeded in toppling some of their loudest opponents, including socialist councilwoman Kshama Sawant, though many ballots that may tip in her favor remain uncounted.

Regardless of the result, the episode should serve as a reminder of the utterly insane state of campaign finance in America. It is bonkers that a corporation of any national origin, including America, can openly spend money with the intent of manipulating an election to their liking, whether or not it works (and it often does). It is wild that we are even talking about “Amazon-backed candidates” in any setting outside of a bribery hearing.

In the case of Seattle’s elections, Amazon dropped a tiny bit of its vast resources into trying to purchase a council that would prize the company’s interests over the interests of Seattle residents, and to quiet progressive critics who have credibly accused Amazon of worsening the homeless crisis. Last year, for example, the city council almost passed a “head tax” of $275 per employee to fund affordable housing, but repealed it just a month later after Amazon launched “a well-funded and vicious campaign.” (There are 11,000 homeless people in Seattle.) The company threatened to sublease space in its new building instead of occupying it itself, which it later did anyway. In 2019, Amazon donated $1.45 million to an organization called Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, which backed six candidates. Sawant’s Amazon-backed opponent, Egan Orion, “garnered personal donations from at least 18 Amazon executives,” according to Bloomberg.

It is true that Amazon, or any domestic company, interfering with elections is not the exact same thing as a foreign company or government spending money in American elections. But how different is it in practice? The logic of rejecting foreign influence in our elections—down to the point of banning any foreign national without a green card from buying a t-shirt from a campaign—is to prevent foreign governments from influencing electoral outcomes for their own potential gain. Again: How significant is the difference between a foreign government seeking to shape our government to its liking, and a huge, multinational corporation that happens to be located in the United States trying to do the same? Or, for that matter, a single billionaire?

The specter of outside influence over our elections is threatening because it undermines the ability of the American people to decide their own fate; the delicate project of democracy rests on the voters choosing the government, that old “by the people, for the people” idea. If that process doesn’t function well, whether it’s because voters are disengaged and turnout is too low or because a small group of wealthy people make sure their opinions are heard far more than everyone else’s, then the sanctity of our democracy can be called into question. Thanks to voter suppression and the aforementioned campaign finance madness, there is already significant cause for doubt.

Yet the discourse around foreign national involvement in American elections never really seems to interrogate the reason it’s illegal in the first place. We are supposed to understand instinctively why “foreigners” shouldn’t have a role in American elections, even though American elections affect the rest of the world to a frightening degree. (Reading these takes as a foreigner in the United States, I am also supposed to agree that it is outrageous for me to want to donate to a candidate whose policies will directly impact my life.) This is an outdated and false notion of what kinds of influence and interference truly are nefarious. It is a vestige from a pre-globalization world in which foreign governments were the greatest threats imaginable. It also underestimates how great the threat from the rich is.

If Russia packed up the Internet Research Agency tomorrow, American elections would still be incredibly vulnerable to manipulation, because foreign governments are not the only actors with an interest in screwing with our democracy. A billionaire like Tom Steyer can spend a trifling amount of his net worth, akin to your average American spending a few hundred bucks, to replace actual politicians on stage in the Democratic primary, all while his aides allegedly bribe local officials for endorsements with the promise of campaign contributions—which is all legal, as long as it’s disclosed. An organization like the United States Chamber of Commerce, representing most of the biggest corporations in America, can spend $10 million on elections (or $94 million on lobbying for that matter), in order to ensure the favorable status quo is maintained.

The defense of a system in which rich individuals and corporations can spend what they like on influencing democracy is always the same: Free speech. Think back to the sunny days of 2012, before covfefe and Big Structural Bailey, when Mitt Romney defended the Citizens’ United decision with the legendary admonishment that “corporations are people, my friend.” This notion, as ridiculous as it sounds, underpins the ability of corporations to spend money on elections. In the case of Citizens’ United, it was to allow them to spend unlimited amounts, as long as they didn’t coordinate with candidates—because limiting what they could spend would be limiting their speech. Yes: Money is speech. One dollar equals one speech.

The trouble with this is that not everyone has the same amount of money. Every American citizen by rights ought to have an equal amount of speech available to them, but if money is speech, an American citizen with a thousand times as much money as their neighbor is able to make a thousand times more impact.

This is not theoretical. In 2014, Joshua Kalla at Yale University and David Broockman at the University of California, Berkeley conducted an experiment to see if politicians were more likely to respond to the needs of donors, versus the needs of ordinary citizens. With the assistance of CREDO Action, the pair “embedded the experiment into a real lobbying effort,” in which CREDO fellows sought audiences with Congresspersons and their staffs over a bill that would ban the use of certain chemicals. Kalla and Broockman discovered that the emails sent from “local campaign donors” ended up yielding “a more than three-fold increase in access to senior officials,” than the same requests from “local constituents.”

“When the attendees were revealed to be ‘local campaign donors,’ they often gained access to Members of Congress, Legislative Directors, and Chiefs of Staff.” Kalla related in an interview with The Washington Post. “But when the attendees were described as only ‘local constituents,’ they almost never gained this level of access.” And these are just the benefits that attach to “local donors.” Members of Congress spend as much (or more) time contacting big-dollar donors as they do at the tasks their constituents nominally sent them to Washington to do in the first place.

These are among the reasons why the United States should ban all private campaign contributions and force candidates to fund their campaigns with public money. The question of how to stop outsize wealth from influencing democracy does not end there—and is much better answered by ending outsize wealth altogether—but it sure would be a start.

It is good that we have laws designed to prevent foreign governments influencing our elections—it would be an awful nightmare for the future survival of our planet to have candidates, backed by petrochemical dictatorships, promising to go easy on their benefactors, for example. As it stands, we have candidates who are instead backed by petrochemical companies that promise to go easy on their benefactors. Always look for that “Made in the USA” label, folks.