Ep. 62 Michael Miller: The Impact of Money in Politics and Voter ID Laws

NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another edition of The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. In early September, thousands of political scientists converged on the home of The MidPod and the hub of the universe, Boston. The American Political Science Association took over the Hynes Convention Center and two hotels for its annual meetings. The vibe was 21st century Nerd Prom with earnest discussions of regression techniques and the long lines at the Blue Bottle Coffee in the Prudential Center. At other times, the conference felt like a deathbed vigil for liberal democracy around the world, with scores of panels and papers on comparative democratic backsliding, measuring the impact of fake news, and the intensification of hyper-partisanship. But we wanted to learn more about two key topics as we head toward Election Day. Money in elections and voter ID laws. Fortunately we were able to catch up with Michael Miller of Barnard College in New York City. Miller is doing cutting-edge work on both issues which, full disclosure, we learned about from two of our daughters who have studied with him at Barnard.

NICIE: Tell us what the main areas of your work have been most recently.

MICHAEL MILLER: I started off working a lot on campaign finance reform particularly public election funding. I think a lot of people still relate my name to public election funding. I have also worked on problems relating to outside spending in campaigns. How voters react to knowledge about funding sources and whether knowing where the money comes from affects how people judge candidates. But more recently I've expanded to questions about voting rights and election reforms. I've also got a major project now on how party chairs at the local level county and community and district how their actions translate and ripple out into broader politics.

NICIE: First I have to ask you the question I'm asking everyone on a scale of 1 to 10, how worried are you about the situation with American democracy?

MILLER: I think we find ourselves in a very important moment. But I also think that we have to resist the temptation to freak out about everything. So what I tell students is the most important thing that we can do today is disassociate the not normal from the normal. And if you are a left-leaning individual and you don't like the policies that are coming out of the present Congress and administration, well that's normal. That's a normal way for you to feel as a out partisan in a democracy. What we need to focus our energy on is the things that are not normal. The erosion of democratic norms when when they come to hiring qualifications or staff treatment of the media, the tendency to ignore some of the things in the Constitution about emoluments for instance, the apparent reluctance to adhere to well-established traditions in elections, and desire by possibly both sides but I think one side in particular to craft election rules that benefit them, shaping the electorate instead of going into the electorate writ large and having the best policies to win. So me myself, I would put it at an 8. I think it's an important time and one of the things that we've wrestled with as a profession is what our role is in this and and me personally I've decided that to the extent that I have a public voice it ought to be used to communicate and educate people when something is not normal. And that is a good venue for our work. We need to be guarded against not being too partisan and not taking sides. But if we don't point out what's not normal, who will do that?

NICIE: Let's talk about money in politics. Tell us how you've seen the evolution of money in campaigns over your career both as a practitioner and a scholar and what you think its role is at this point.

MILLER: I remember very clearly I once worked for a candidate who if you looked at his biography he checked every box he was a longtime member of the community, he was well-educated he spoke well, but he just couldn't raise money. He hated it. And I think this is common practice for many candidates and keeps a lot of good people out. Nobody runs for office to ask people for money. But my early work really focused on that problem and I think it's the act of fundraising. The fact that if you're elected to Congress these days I know that the Democratic conference requires their members to meet a fundraising goal every week and they have a call center across the street from the Capitol. Well if you're spending eight hours or 10 hours a week raising money, that's 10 hours a week you're not talking to constituents and voters and making good policy. And so my early work really focused on evaluating reforms that could free politicians from that act. And you know I began working on questions relating to some state laws, you know the states are always the laboratory of democracy. And there were three states at the time that were effectively giving candidates all of the money that they needed to run for the state legislature. Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine. And I found exactly what I thought I would that the candidates who took these subsidies would not go to the beach with the time that they would have spent fundraising they would go and knock on more doors and meet more voters. And more people voted when one of those candidates was running. And so there were real electoral and participatory and representative qualities that flowed from this campaign finance reform. The problem that we're seeing is the federal courts have exhibited a real skepticism of campaign finance innovation particularly in the last 10 years beginning with Citizens United. But that's not really the end it's just the beginning of the story.

MILLER: We've seen an erosion of campaign finance reform both at the federal and the state level. So these programs that I just talked about were effectively gutted in 2011 by the Supreme Court for esoteric reasons. The new development at the state level has been to incentivize small donors to participate. So one of the best examples is New York City which if you give up to 125 dollars as a private citizen, the city will match your contribution in city elections six to one so you can turn your small donation into a thousand bucks or so which candidates notice. And we are seeing some evidence that this is bringing more donors, the the donor population is becoming more like the voting population which I think given that a lot of our field suggests that the people who fund federal elections are much more ideologically extreme than the people who vote, I see this as a good reform and we also find ourselves at a moment where as I said the Supreme Court very well could strike down contribution limitations within the next five years and people like me are thinking down the road about this and trying to figure out how to produce research to supply to the advocates when these cases are made for the reasons why we ought to keep having contribution limitations. I as a private citizen don't want to live in a democracy where money is allowed to flow into the system completely unrestricted. If there's one thing that I think I could communicate to people who don't think about campaign finance a lot, which is almost every American, if you care about one thing, care about disclosure.

MILLER: Knowing where the money comes from we think and I say we because I think there's a growing body of political scientists who would agree with this if we're going to have one thing then know where the money is coming from and if I could fix one thing about American democracy right now it would be to unify the IRS code with the federal election code so that you can't have groups who organized as nonprofits so that they can keep the identity of their donors secret because you know one thing that we really need to talk about that hasn't been talked about is that there's a real relationship here and a real potential for foreign money and I'm thinking Russian money but it can be any country. If I set up a nonprofit group and I give it a really great name like Everybody for America or something that's completely innocuous because it sounds just like every other public service organization, well there's nothing on the books right now to stop me from taking money from a foreign government and then turning around and spending that in American elections. This dark money is always framed as a way for rich people to influence elections but I see it as a security problem. A national security problem. And for that reason we need to close that loophole so that every dollar spent no matter how large the initial contribution was, every dollar spent in American politics is the source is documented.

NICIE: Does that lend itself to a legislative solution that would pass muster with the Supreme Court?

MILLER: I think the Supreme Court has not shown hostility toward disclosure. If you look at the history of litigation on campaign finance the one thing that has always been true is that the Supreme Court wants to hear campaign finance arguments as a tension between First Amendment rights. The court sees campaign spending as a First Amendment issue the equivalent of speech. So that is pit against corruption or the appearance of corruption. And the court has said well OK we can limit this money coming in because we need to have an understanding that our government is not for sale and that's important enough to restrict the speech rights of spending. And it hasn't really deviated from that because central to that claim is the knowledge that you've got to understand where the money is coming from so that you know who might be buying the politician and what it is that they want. Now the Supreme Court has signaled in recent cases that it might waffle a little bit on contribution limits and might say that citizens can just give whatever. But it has not signaled that you can do it anonymously. And there are very good reasons for that.

NICIE: And tell me what you see as the effects of money in elections, so we understand at least one point six billion dollars will be spent in these congressional midterm elections. What's it's gonna buy the the campaigns and those that seek to influence them?

MILLER: I think a lot of voters make assumptions about the relationship between money and and votes. But I think it's really helpful to to actually look at the spending reports and see what this money goes to. Far and away what congressional campaigns spend the most money on is staff salaries. We have begun to see campaigning as a cottage industry that it employs a lot of people and you see vagabond consultants going from campaign to campaign. And there's not a lot of job security but there is a decent living in it. And they're making their money on selling mail and selling campaign advertising. And that's really the second or third most common expenditure. And so one thing that's kind of assuring to me when I think about the myriad campaign finance regulations that we might have is that there's not a lot of evidence that advertising forms an enduring preference. Like I can't buy your support with a great ad. The effects that we do observe are ephemeral. They go away after one to two weeks and there's is not a lot of evidence that they make people turn out. Which begs a really interesting two questions actually, one why do campaigns continue spending money on things that don't work?

MILLER: And two what does work? The answer to the first question is that the industry of consultants that has emerged since the establishment of television as a guiding force in American politics has become self-sustaining. They tend to really protect the thing that they specialize in. So if you're a mail consultant you're going to go to campaigns and say oh well you need to have as much mail into the district as possible. Why. Well because that's how I make my money. And if you're a TV consultant you want to say go up on on air early and often. And you know when we ask consultants I haven't done this but I would bet if we ask consultants well are you sure that this is the best way to spend money? They would say of course that's how we've always done it and I've won campaigns doing it so therefore it must be the case. One of the very few things that almost everyone in this conference center would agree on is that's not the way to win an election. One of the best replicated findings in political science is that it's small, shoe leather, face-to-face campaigns. That's what really swings voters. We call it high-quality interaction. So if I can meet you on your doorstep and hear about the things that you care about and give you my position on them, that's how I win your vote. It was true in 1845. It's still true today. But I don't think campaign consultants are willing to come around to all of that evidence.

MILLER: The problem for them is that we are beginning to see candidates directing their staffs to pursue these strategies we just saw a field campaign in the Florida gubernatorial election work, we've seen I think three or four small dollar shoe leather congressional primary candidates make surprise victories. And so I think candidates might be coming around on this and may end up leading the consultants 'cause you put enough consultants out of business and that might be the best way to reduce the cost of campaigns. Now look if you are listening to this somewhere and you don't like how expensive American political campaigns are ask yourself, Are you volunteering any of your time to help the effort? 'Cause if you're willing to go and make a few calls, make a few door knocks for your preferred candidate, that's money that the candidate doesn't have to spend. And that is absolutely the best way to reach voters. So I would call in anybody Democratic, Republican, find something you believe in and tell people face-to-face about it.

NICIE: An analog call to action in a digital world.

MILLER: Absolutely. And I know it's counterintuitive. And I know that we are wired to believe that it's TV and it's social media and it's but that's not what it is. We still value having that face-to-face conversation.

NICIE: Well anything else that's really on your mind that you think our listeners should know?

MILLER: One of the most important things that we should also talk about in addition to campaign finance is voting rights. Since the Shelby County Decision we have seen a flurry of state laws being made on voting rights and very few of them have been to expand the franchise. I think it is worth being on guard and always being critical when we see state legislatures particularly when they have just assumed power after being out of power for a while. Any time a state legislature moves to impact voting rights, citizens should be on guard for that. And we should demand evidence for the actions that state legislatures are making.

NICIE: You have some recent research on the impact of a new voter ID law in Texas. Tell us about that.

MILLER: Well one of the problems that we've had in political science in studying voter ID laws is so we haven't really had very good data. We want to observe people at the individual level and we can't know who would vote in the absence of a law. So there is a very difficult problem there. Some of the ways that we've tried to get around that is just by surveying people and saying do you have an I.D. and then trying to figure out if that's related to how they vote. But with a co-author Bernard Fraga of Indiana University we exploited a district court decision that came out of a Texas law that was passed coming out of what I just said. The law in Texas was passed one day after the Shelby County decision. For people who haven't followed this it was Shelby County that gutted the Voting Rights Act and allowed states mainly in the South but not exclusively to change their voting laws without federal preclearance. And so Texas passed this strict voter ID. And there were only six IDs that were acceptable and they had to have a photo. They did not accept student IDs but they did accept gun registration IDs and that I think is telling when it comes to you know who the Texas legislature wanted to vote. And so this law was immediately challenged in federal court, ultimately struck down right before the 2016 election, but it was fully implemented for 2014 and because it was so close to 2016 election the district court said look we're not going to take this law away. What we are going to do is anybody who shows up at the poll without an ID can vote as long as they fill out this paper that says why they don't have an ID.

MILLER: Well when we read that opinion we thought this is a great opportunity to understand the population of people who don't have identification. And so we asked the state to give us those petitions which they did and we spent the year coding them and trying to get the data out of them. We've just completed our first analysis and what we've found is that compared to the people who showed up with the photo identification, people who arrived at the polls without identification in 2016 were significantly less white, it's mainly true of African-Americans, it's marginally true of Hispanics so far in our analysis. And then when we look backwards at 2014 when the law was fully implemented we found that the group of people without ID was about 12 points less likely to vote. What's also interesting though is when we look at the reasons that people gave for not having I.D., we found that this is this is not the group that I think people on the left picture when they talk about disenfranchisement because we were able to distinguish between folks who had once proven that they could get an ID, and this is people who had moved or students or people who said yeah I have it but I lost it. And that's the majority of people who found themselves in one one of these categories and so there looks to be a pretty healthy impact on people who are what we call "I.D. capable" as opposed to the story that you get of the little old lady you never had the birth certificate and would never be able to get an ID. So I think this also opens another lane of conversation when it comes to voter I.D. We are disenfranchising people but they're not necessarily the kind of people that we thought. And so there's all kinds of policy things that follow from this. I think what we are prepared to say is we think we have the best evidence so far that voter ID laws are disenfranchising and they are disproportionately disenfranchising people of color.

NICIE: Really appreciate your spending time with The MidPod today. Thank you.

MILLER: Thanks for having me.

NICIE: Our thanks to Michael Miller of Barnard College. That's it for now. Tune in on Friday for an interview with Gina Ortiz Jones who's running in Texas's twenty third congressional district. We're heading back to Texas this week and look forward to bringing you a full report on the Texas Senate race aka Beto-mania as well as Heather's selection of great tastes from Austin and more conversations with citizens and activists. Thanks for listening and thanks for staying active in the fight to preserve and strengthen our democracy.

Eunice Panetta