Throughout this US election, one of the most popular narratives among Democrats and in the liberal press is that the Republicans are doing their damnedest to wrest this election from any kind of democratic process. They are, the theory has gone, going to buy it and they are doing this through the Super Pacs, which were legalised into existence in 2010.
The trope of these shadowy rightwing billionaires controlling the country from behind the Super Pac fig leaves is so familiar that it is satirised in Will Ferrell and Zack Galifinakis' upcoming, very silly and intermittently political comedy, The Campaign. Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow play a pair of Mr Smithers-like brothers who bear a more-than-passing resemblance to David and Charles Koch, two American billionaire libertarians who, due to their wealth and political manipulation, have been described as "the Standard Oil of our time".
However, it is increasingly looking like the Super Pacs might not have the impact that the Democrats feared. For a start, even through the Republicans have much more money than the Democrats to spend through outside groups – estimates ranging from anywhere between four times as much, to 18 times as much, are routinely bandied about – Romney is by no means killing it. At best, it's a dead heat and, according to the latest polls, he's losing in the crucial swing states.
"People just aren't paying attention to political ads the way they used to," a Republican campaign pollster told the Wall Street Journal this week by way of explanation, and this is almost certainly true. Another possible factor is that, in this election, political adverts don't really matter simply because so many people in America aren't actually voting for either candidate: they're just voting against the other one. So if someone has simply decided that they just want Obama out, all the anti-Romney adverts in the world won't make much of a difference to them.
But if you can't get people to pay attention to the ads, or change their mind, you could just stop them from voting at all. And it is here that accusations of election thievery both stick and might have more cause for concern.
There has been much anxious talk about voter fraud from the conservatives and the rightwing media, so much so that Fox News even has a "voter fraud unit". To prevent this terrible crime against democracy, the Republicans have been striving to implement voter ID and voter suppression laws, focusing particularly on the crucial swing states, with eight states already passing the law that people must provide a state-approved document and photo in order to vote. This move will, as it happens, mainly affect minority groups, the poor, the elderly and students when it comes to voting – not because it's illegal for them to vote, but because these are the groups that most commonly don't have photo ID, such as driving licenses and passports. As it happens, these are also the groups more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. And, of course, the Republicans know that: Mike Turzai, the Republican state representative for Pennsylvania, said in a talk in June:
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"Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania? Done."
Other states have gone for the simpler routes of changing what times people can vote and trying to make it as inconvenient as possible for black Americans to vote, for example, or – as a compromise – proposing to extend voting hours but only in Republican areas.
Now, all this would be bad enough if voter fraud was actually a problem. But it isn't. Despite extensive searches by Republicans in Florida and Colorado, they have found less than one tenth of 1% of illegals among registered voters. Colorado's secretary of state, Scott Gessler, claimed last year that 11,805 non-citizens were committing voter fraud. As AP reported this week, this number has since been revised to 141 and, of those, only 35 have voted. This amounts to 0.004% of the state's votes.
As Jessica Williams on the Daily Show said last month, what these voter fraud laws are mainly about is: "If you're not going to vote for Mitt Romney, stay the fuck at home." Elizabeth Drew, writing New York Review of Books blog this week on the voter fraud nonsense, put it even stronger:
"The wrongdoing that we are seeing in this election … is the worst thing that has happened to our democratic election system since the late 19th century, when legislatures in southern states systematically negated the voting rights blacks had won in the 15th amendment to the constitution."
This election will be extremely close and the outcome could come down to votes numbering in the six figures. Democrats might have thought that money was their biggest hurdle against the Republicans. But, not for the first time, they may have underestimated their opponent.