I had not heard of the term "street money" before about a week ago. Yet as I've looked into the story of Joe Lieberman's $387,000 in unaccounted petty cash disbursements, the term keeps coming up. Street money is a term that describes cash campaigns use to pay people to vote for their candidate. Street money is vote buying. It can be handled by campaign staff, but more often is distributed to go-betweens that will spread it around their neighborhoods. Street money is apparently a phenomenon common to poor, urban, minority population centers - places like Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford.
I want to use this post to explain how street money works, because I imagine there are many other people out there who aren't familiar with the term.
A campaign will rely on the influence or outreach abilities of people who know their community to distribute street money for votes. This can mean local political organizers, ministers, labor leaders, or often drug dealers. There are three basic ways street money can be used to buy votes.
1. Campaign workers will provide their go-between with a list of names from a voter roll in a particular precinct, usually a poor area with low-information voters (in the parlance of Sean Smith). They will promise the go-between a set dollar amount for every name that votes. The go-between will then go out and pay people to vote. At the close of the election the campaign matches the list given to the go-between and the cross-off sheet from the precinct's polling place and pay accordingly. In this scenario the campaign is paying for votes to be turned out with no questions asked.
A go between can turn these votes out however they want. It could be cash or it could be a free lunch. The point is that they are compensated for this and so are the people who vote for the candidate. It's built around quid pro quo and this is one of the most prevalent uses of street money that I've heard takes place in Connecticut.
2. Street money is also used to pay people for work that they never do in exchange for their votes or their support turning out voters. A campaign might pay people in advance to be poll watchers, canvassers, or work phone banks, but the people will never show up and do the work. They get to walk away with money and the candidate gets their votes.
3. Lastly, street money is used to pay influential community members for services never provided. These people can then funnel the money into vote buying or using their connections to pull in more voters for the candidate who's throwing cash around.
As I said before, street money is a disturbingly common campaign tool in Connecticut, particularly in urban centers like Bridgeport and Hartford. Many campaigns use it and in some places it is conventionally concerned prerequisite to winning. This does not mean that a campaign must have a lot of money in play on the streets to win in Connecticut and I am by no means suggesting that all campaigns use street money. But some certainly do.
There are two things that I find truly disgraceful about street money. This practice is a plague on our democratic process. It endangers the health of our elections. It is corruption, plain and simple. It cuts against every civic principle that I hold dear as a Democrat and an American. Buying votes is a crime and any campaign that does so sacrifices all claims that it might make on moral leadership.
The use of street money in urban, minority neighborhoods is premised on the notion that poor voters, black voters, hispanic voters will only care about politics and elections if you pay them to care. Rather than reaching out to poor, minority voters to engage them in the political process, campaigns treat them like chattel whose voting power can be bought and sold. This bigotry is infuriating and is truly the most contemptible form of political campaigning.
Street money is a sad reality. But is it Joe Lieberman's reality? Did the Lieberman campaign use all or some of their $387,000 in unaccounted for petty cash as street money with no questions asked (and no receipts kept)? What do you know, Joe?
42 USCS §1973i(c)
(c) False information in registering or voting; penalties
Whoever knowingly or willfully gives false information as to his name, address or period of residence in the voting district for the purpose of establishing his eligibility to register or vote, or conspires with another individual for the purpose of encouraging his false registration to vote or illegal voting, or pays or offers to pay or accepts payment either for registration to vote or for voting shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both: Provided, however, That this provision shall be applicable only to general, special, or primary elections held solely or in part for the purpose of selecting or electing any candidate for the office of President, Vice President, presidential elector, Member of the United States Senate, Member of the United States House of Representatives, Delegate from the District of Columbia, Guam, or the Virgin Islands, or Resident Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
Street money is vote buying and vote buying is illegal.