4 Ways Elections Are Even More Corrupt Than You Think
Think about the water heater in your house for a second. Can you picture it? When was the last time you thought about it? I'm guessing never. Am I correct?
And that's fine, because your water heater is probably working great. But, every now and then, it's important to think about your water heater. Why? Maybe something could go catastrophically wrong, causing your whole plumbing system to explode, and you might find yourself with bits of shrapnel embedded in your skull while your basement is covered in an explosion of shit.
That was a metaphor about elections. Sometimes, really crappy things happen during them. In fact, by the end of this article, you might prefer an actual shit basement.
Robocalls are pretty much what they sound like: calls from robotic phone banks that irritatingly play prerecorded messages. Or, in some cases, they are just calls generated by an autodialer to connect human people to other human people much more rapidly than we could do with our puny human fingers and pathetic human dialing pads.
I chatted with Adam Ruff -- a former presidential campaign staffer, long-time political operative, and former congressional campaign manager -- about the way robocalls were deployed.
Please say it's this ...
"Voter ineligibility is a great one," he told me. "It really fucks with people. Nobody knows whether or not they can vote."
I should emphasize that Adam was using 'great' ironically -- like a 'great extinction' or the way Charlie Chaplin made a movie called The Great Dictator.
It works this way: "You call and say, 'This is the bureau of voter fraud regulation. Due to your failure to show up in the primaries, you are ineligible to vote in the general election. While we apologize for the inconvenience, lines are expected to be four to eight hours long, so we didn't want you to get here and then be turned away.'"
Every word of this call is, of course, nonsense. But, if you target a specific group of people -- very often minority people -- you can, perhaps, keep them from coming out to the polls. Especially if you promise "long lines with failure waiting at the end of them" -- the world's worst theme park marketing campaign. Besides, you know, "come here and die publicly." But, second worst. Definitely second worst.
Adam is sort of a robocall buff, and he spent a gleeful half-hour explaining all the subgenres of the form. There are the calls to jam up an opponent's office on Election Day; there are the calls that tell you you'll need a passport -- a document highly correlated to wealth -- in order to vote; and there are the 2 a.m. calls purporting to be from an opponent's campaign designed specifically to piss people off.
"I'm still not voting for Trump. Good night."
Robocalls are also almost impossible to track and, for a consulting fee, many robocalling firms will show you how to set up the call and do it yourself, eliminating any liability or record that the firm might have.
The good news is that robocalls are falling out of favor. Another political consultant I spoke with told me that electioneering robocalls have dropped way off because "you can go on the Internet and report them, and the backlash can be huge." Way to go, Internet: For once, our mob mentality is doing some good.
Look, you and I both know that you would love to volunteer on Election Day. You want to help people fulfill their civic duty and get them out to the polls. But, as a great statesman once said ...
That, more or less, is the governing principle in most big-city elections. The idea that you buy off precinct captains in order to get people to the polls is so commonplace that it barely elicited a shrug from any of the campaign consultants I spoke to.
One former politico told me, "Particularly in Philadelphia ... Election Day is known as payday. Your bundlers, the big fund-raisers you have, write checks to 'cash.' Then, they leave these big, thick envelopes of cash at the campaign office and then the precinct captains have the block captains, and the block captains have the building captains, and they get a payday. And there's an incentive to make more money. Each new person who turns out, I get more. It's on a sliding scale: The votes that are above and beyond where the votes lay in previous years are worth more ... The system is really complex. It's a very MIT/Las Vegas odds system of [getting out the vote]."
That's right: sabermetrics. We're in the era of municipal-election-graft Moneyball. But, that's Philadelphia.
If you want real corruption, you go to Chicago because ... well, obviously. There just isn't anywhere in America more delightfully synonymous with political corruption. Despite a population of less than half of New York's, Chicago has had more convicted politicians than any other city since 1976.
At least Chicago's beating New York at something these days!
So, it almost seems natural that a 19-year-old volunteer -- let's call her "Amy" -- with $15,000 in a duffle bag would get held up at gunpoint by a member of her own campaign. This was a person she actually knew by first and last name as well as a person who apologized as he was stealing from her. Amy called her campaign headquarters. They were nonplussed. They told her to get out of the building since other precinct captains might murder her if she didn't have their money. It's a Chicago election, Amy. Obviously, murder is on the table.
Then, in a shocking coincidence, the man who stole from her broke both of his legs. Far be it from me to imply it wasn't a coincidence or that Chicago is a deeply corrupt city where people just break other people like toothpicks with fragile legs. I would never imply that.
OK. Yes. This is one that people talk about a lot. And it's way more boring than it used to be back when you could just murder the other party's voters.
Moreover, there is real and sincere injustice in some of the efforts to curtail voter fraud through ID laws. John Oliver brought this up a couple months ago. The trick is that voter fraud doesn't really happen at the polls. Identification isn't the issue -- it's registration.
"The Africans got it right. They know how to steal votes," Carl Silverberg, a campaign consultant who has worked across the U.S. and around the globe, told me. "If you really wanna do an election, you do it on the registration side. By the time everybody gets to the polls, by the time everybody focuses on it, you're already done."
Who even has time to read all this?
This is, more or less, what happened in Wisconsin in 2014. The trick, apparently, is that registration is both fairly easy and has few resources to actually check up on the registrants.
"Dead people vote all the time," Silverberg told me, "People talk about getting out the dead vote, and you can do that. It's a little harder now, but it's still doable ... And [Republicans] know how to do it just as well ... If I do 10 fraudulent votes in maybe 1,000 precincts, that's 10,000 votes. You're never gonna swing a big election, that's never gonna happen, but a small race..."
Which brings me to ...
Whisper Campaigns And Negative Research
There's an expression that American politics is fought between the 40-yard lines. The politics of the nation moves very gradually between the moderate left and the moderate right, and the two things that account for the bulk of the shift are turnout and swing voters.
The overwhelming majority of swing voters are what political science people call "low information voters." The meaning of the term is pretty self-evident. They are much more likely to be swayed by a candidate's appearance or by a first impression. Or, it might even be by a second impression if that candidate proceeds to eat phallic-shaped food in a funny way.
"Keep the camera pointed right here. Do not move."
And that's why all the stuff we've been talking about doesn't matter as much as a good whisper campaign. It's hard to get a good estimate of the numbers since a) a lot of people don't get caught and b) no one will admit to actually doing any of this stuff. It's like asking a 4 year old why there is a shattered vase in the living room and being told it was "Buddy the Invisible Turtle" -- you're pretty sure there's a better explanation, but it's also bedtime, so maybe it's best not to ask.
The most famous examples are the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth ...
... and the various whisper campaigns George Bush ran against John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina Primary. Those were both lies of the "Buddy-The-Invisible-Turtle" variety, but most campaigns have some less severe variety.
People like rumors. That's how rumors work.
"You say 'so and so hasn't paid his taxes properly,'" Carl Silverberg told me, "But, that could mean that you filed for an extension. Everybody files for an extension. But, now, 'you can't even pay your taxes on time.' So for the next 24 to 48 hours, you have to go in front of the media and deny this. And that's 48 hours when I had control of the message and you didn't. You take kernels of information and put them out there, and you force the other person to defend themselves. And you do it often enough that someone gets emotional and says something stupid. Close elections are never won -- they're always lost."
There's an old story about Lyndon Johnson in an early congressional campaign: He purportedly told his campaign manager he was going to announce that his opponent was a "pig fucker."
The campaign manager responded, "Christ, we can't call him that, it isn't true." Johnson replied, "Of course it ain't true, but I want to make the son of a bitch deny it."
What a ball buster, right? I mean, in this modern era, who would ever actively accuse an opponent of fucking a pig? Right?!
Wrong. In case you missed it, last year, the British Prime Minister David Cameron literally had to defend himself against accusations that, when he was in college, he put his cock in a dead pig's mouth. Is it true? Who cares? He had to deny it.
Who else just got excited for the new season of Black Mirror?
And these rumors -- mostly nonsense, but occasionally true -- are how we actually decide elections. I have personally been involved in a congressional campaign that we nearly won in a 2-to-1 Republican district wherein the question of whether our opponent baked penis-shaped cookies was a major issue. I have also worked one where a major debate topic was how often our candidate took naps. Naps and penis cookies: That's how we choose who is going to control our nuclear submarines.
The upside is that is also why all the most obviously corrupt stuff is happening less and less. It's just cheaper and more effective to spread misinformation. Those posts on your Facebook wall saying Hilary is corrupt or Trump is racist or Bernie is unelectable do more to influence turnout and results than any voter suppression scheme could ever do.
The point here is that when campaign season starts, an undecided voter knows it's time to get a new water heater. Up until now, it was just a thing that kept his shower warm. But, he's heard a rumor, and it's time to switch brands. "Why?" the storekeeper wants to know. "Well," he says, "I don't know how, I can't explain it, and I can't tell you how it is that I know it. But, I'm pretty sure my water heater has been fucking a pig."
See why stealing domain names is going to be the dick move of all future elections in The 5 Most Entertaining Dick Moves Of The Election (So Far), and learn why the world won't end regardless of who wins in 10 Simple Facts To Make You Feel Better About This Election.
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