Global Director Bonnie Reiss was the keynote speaker for the Town and Gown “Election Day Special” luncheon on November 4th. Town and Gown is the oldest women’s organization at USC, established 106 years ago, to support the University of Southern California through student scholarships, building and campus enhancements and cultural programs.
With much at stake in this years' midterm election, Bonnie Reiss provided an overview and analysis of the national elections, campaign themes and tactics, voter turnout, and a discussion about the California ballot races and initiatives.
Bonnie raised concerns about low voter turnout and the record amounts of money spent on elections combining to make election results more influenced by wealthy power brokers than average citizens. She cited the recent Princeton study that suggests we are moving from democracy to oligarchy and she shared the shocking statistics of the rise in expenditures. Bonnie referenced that eight years ago the average cost of a U.S. Senate race was 5 million dollars and now is over 10 million, and the aggregate money spent nationally by candidates rose from 1.5 billion dollars to over 4 billion dollars. Even more alarming is the growth in “independent expenditures” from 15 million to over 1 billion dollars during that same eight year period; Bonnie suggested this is a huge issue we should be focused on. She did opine that with recent Supreme Court rulings there is little that can be done legislatively to restrict expenditures, which the current court has equated directly with first amendment rights. One such case was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that contributed to these increased expenditures by eliminating prohibitions on corporate independent expenditures and electioneering communications.
Key senate races such as Iowa, Kentucky and Kansas were looked at with a particular focus on Kansas. With Independent Senate candidate Greg Orman running strong against incumbent republican Pat Roberts, Bonnie played an Orman campaign ad that tapped into voter frustration with the gridlock in Congress, promising to be a candidate for all the people and work with any party to get problems fixed. Recent polls report that frustration with Congressional gridlock is the number one issue across many states.
Bonnie highlighted California leadership on addressing this issue by passing two political reforms that Governor Schwarzenegger led with a bi-partisan coalition. The “re-districting reform” was to end gerrymandering, and the “open primary” reform was to reduce extremism by both parties, which is inherent in a two party primary system as well as blocking out independent voters from having a more meaningful role in elections.
Last year the USC Schwarzenegger Institute commissioned a study by USC Political Science professor Christian Grose, to look at the impact to date of these reforms on the California legislature. The results showed significant reduction in polarization and increased moderation, while for the same period of time the U.S. Congress levels of polarization were increasing.
Oregon voters are voting on a California style “open primary” initiative and the USC Schwarzenegger Institute was assisting with data and support. The Institute is also working with Common Cause and Independent Voter.Org in many states with political reform agendas in hopes of keeping our democracy strong, which means a system accountable to the people, where the voices of ordinary citizens are more important then the voices of a few power brokers.
To watch the entire speech Click Here