Voting rights are not fully realized if they are only about the getting into the polling booth to cast a vote. Voting rights are also about the right to vote for who you want once you get to vote. Otherwise, we have will still have the kind of electoral system that has prevailed since Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall taunted: “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.”
That prevailing system is single-member-district, winner-take-all elections. The voters for the plurality winner get all the representation and every other political viewpoint—political and ethnic minorities, the major party that is a minority in a particular district—gets no representation. Without proportional representation, most voters don’t have representatives in office from their districts who represent them. Most districts are effectively uncompetitive one-party districts. Knowing their votes won’t change who represents them because the winner is baked in, the nonvoters are biggest block of voters most elections. Single-member plurality voting is a system of exclusion, not inclusive democracy.
For all the provisions in the massive 800-page For the People Act (H.R.1/S.1), none of them addressed the exclusionary nature of single-member-district, winner-take-all elections. Nor did it any address the exclusionary nature of highly restrictive ballot access requirements for minor parties and independent candidates. While the bill did have important provisions for voter access to the ballot and campaign finance disclosure, the bill is now probably dead in this session of Congress. The Republicans defeated it on June 22 by their filibuster of a motion to debate the bill. So now the bill returns to its status as a Democratic Party messaging bill, as it has really been since it passed the House in 2019 when the Senate was still under Republican control. So it is a good time to expand the voting rights and pro-democracy agenda.
Democrats Lose Negotiations with Themselves
Despite the June 22 statements from Biden, Harris, Schumer, and Klobuchar that they will keep fighting, what they are really fighting for is messaging in the 2022 mid-term elections. They may try to amplify the message by setting up the John Lewis Voting Rights Act for a similar defeat by Republican filibuster in the coming months, but they really have no path forward to passing these bills before the mid-terms because the Democrats are unable to end or modify the filibuster.
Republicans are using the filibuster as their openly white supremacist forbears used it to undermine the voting rights of Black people. They are echoing racist states-rights sloganeering going back to pro-slavery John C. Calhoun and all his segregationist Dixiecrat descendants, even though the Elections Clause of the US Constitution (Article I, Section 4, Clause 1) plainly gives Congress the right to regulate federal elections administered by the states.
The Democrats can’t blame the Republicans because they are far from united against the filibuster themselves. At any time, they could use their 51 votes—50 Democratic Senators plus the tie-breaker, Vice-President Harris—to repeal the cloture rule that enables the filibuster. They could have suspended the cloture rule just for the For the People Act on June 22 in order to move the bill to the floor for debate, amendments, and a final vote.
It is not just Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema who are stopping filibuster reform on the Democratic side. These two senators are fronting publicly for the dozen or so Democratic Senators who quietly support the filibuster, including Angus King of Maine, Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Pat Leahy of Vermont, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Thomas Carper and Christopher Coons of Delaware (Biden’s home state), Mark Warner of Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Kelly of Arizona, and Diane Feinstein of California.
The filibuster means the whole agenda of liberal reforms the Democrats nominally support are likely dead in this session of Congress, including DC Statehood, the Dream Act, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the public option, universal background checks, and the Equality Act to include sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity as protected classes under the Civil Rights Act. The Democrats will have to run in 2022 not on what they accomplished but on what the Republicans stopped them from doing even though they had control both houses. Good luck with that, particularly as pundits note that the Democrats failed in their negotiations with themselves on the filibuster before they ever got to Republican obstructions.
Feckless Democrats and Ruthless Republicans
While the feckless Democrats negotiate with themselves on whether to repeal or modify the filibuster to secure voting rights, the Republicans are moving full speed ahead in the states to rig elections in their favor. If no voting rights legislation passes by Labor Day, it will be too late to impact the 2022 mid-terms. With only four weeks scheduled for Senate business between the July 4th and August recesses (16 out of 75 days from June 24 to Labor Day) and with infrastructure, the debt ceiling, and the budget appropriations bill at the top of the agenda, the prospects for voting rights on this lackadaisical schedule are dim to nil. Meanwhile, the Republicans are busy passing laws in the 30 states where they control both houses to make it harder to vote for Blacks, Latinos, Asians, immigrants, and young people who lean strongly Democratic. Republicans in the states are busy doing partisan gerrymandering in the 20 states where they control both houses, there is no independent redistricting commission, and no Democratic governor to resist a partisan Republican redistricting plan. The Republicans will use that power to gerrymander over-representation in state legislatures and the House of their minority base that is conservative rural white America. This gerrymandering will likely result in a Republican majority in the House after the mid-terms. Gerrymandering alone will give the Republicans 15-20 more seats by most estimates, overwhelming the Democrats’ current narrow six-seat majority.
Most dangerous of all, the Republicans are passing laws to take the final say on vote counting and election certification away from independently-elected Secretaries of State and bipartisan or nonpartisan county and state boards of election and give it to partisan state legislatures. In other words, the Republicans are setting up the structure to steal elections in the states they control. This control will impact not only state elections for state and federal office, but also the 2024 presidential election where Republican House and Senate members could steal the presidency by refusing to accept the results from some states the Democrat wins.
The U.S. has been through this authoritarian scenario before when the racist party, then the Democratic Party campaigning on the slogan of White Supremacy, brazenly stole elections during and after Reconstruction with violence and ostensibly “race-neutral” laws like poll taxes and literacy tests to get around the 15th Amendment’s prohibition of racial discrimination in voting. Those voter suppression laws disenfranchised most poor southern whites as well as almost all southern blacks. Tracking by the Brennan Center for Justice is documenting the aggressive the scale and scope of today’s Republican-sponsored voter suppression laws in the states as well as the escalating threats of violence against election administrators. On June 25, the Justice Department responded by forming a task force to investigate and prosecute these criminal threats.
Reverend William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign, who was arrested protesting outside the Senate Building the day after the filibuster of the For the People Act, notes that Republican voter suppression is class war as well as racial oppression: “Voter suppression is a tool of the committed racists and the greedy aristocracy to undermine the votes of the people. It’s not just a Black thing.” Barber points to what Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1965 about the destruction of Reconstruction and the smashing of the Greenback-Labor and People’s parties of the farmer-labor populist movement by the wealthy classes in the latter half of the nineteen century. King’s words could just as well describe what we are witnessing today with Republican voter suppression and election theft legislation and the violence they instigate with dishonest conspiracy mongering and scapegoating:
Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.
To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society….
Thus the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and white masses alike resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything. That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society.
What today most prevents the kind of class-based multi-racial movement that the populists tried to build is the exclusionary winner-take-all electoral system. Most progressive policies have majoritarian support but they do not translate into public policy because the winner-take-all electoral system denies most people representatives who actually support those policies. Republican voter suppression and election tampering make that problem worse. But the voting rights agenda must be expanded from voter access to the ballot to voter access to all of their political options if we are to have a political system open to and reflecting the progressive majority in this country.
Expand the Voting Rights and Pro-Democracy Agenda
Voters are denied the right to vote for representatives of their own choosing by seven features of the prevailing U.S. electoral system:
* The absence of a right to vote in the U.S. Constitution.
* The absence of a right to nonpartisan voting counting.
* Unreasonably difficult ballot access for independent candidates and third parties.
* Winner-take-all plurality elections that deny representation to all political viewpoints except the plurality.
* The U.S. Senate that does represent people equally on the basis of one person, one vote.
* The Electoral College that has elected 19 presidents with less than a majority of the popular vote, including five who lost the popular vote.
* The legalized bribery of private campaign financing.
A Voting Rights and Pro-Democracy Agenda should therefore include:
* A Right to Vote Amendment to the U.S Constitution
* Nonpartisan Vote Counting
* Fair Ballot Access
* Proportional Representation
* Abolition of the Senate
* Abolition of the Electoral College and Presidential Elections by a Majority Popular Vote
* Public Financing of Public Elections
The For the People Act incorporated many previously introduced Democratic election reform bills into one omnibus bill, but it still did not address any of these rights except the public financing question. While supporting the voting rights, campaign finance disclosure, and ethic reforms in the For the People Act, I twice took to these pages to warn that the public campaign matching funds reform it proposed actually preserves the domination of private campaign financing by the ultra-rich, effectively excludes third party candidates from public financing, and magnifies the funding disparities between lower and higher funded candidates who do qualify for public matching funds. Here my argument is that the voting rights and pro-democracy agenda must be expanded so people have the opportunity to vote for who they want once they get their ballots.
A Right to Vote Amendment to the U.S Constitution
Before we can ensure people have the right to vote for who they want, we have to ensure that they have the right to cast a vote in the first place. While the U.S. Constitution bans voting discrimination based on race, sex and age, it does not state that all U.S. citizens have the right to vote. Thus the Supreme Court infamously ruled in Bush v. Gore in 2000 that “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote….”
The voting rights movement should therefore support the proposed Right To Vote Amendment, which will empower Congress to implement by legislation and require the courts to enforce the individual citizen’s right to vote. It will strengthen the legal grounds for enforcement of federal election standards like those proposed in the For the People Act because it establishes that voting is an individual right, not merely a privilege granted or not by the states.
Nonpartisan Vote Counting
At least 216 bills in 41 states have been introduced by Republicans to give legislatures power over elections officials. 24 have already been enacted into law across 14 states. The purge of Black and Democratic election officials has already begun in Georgia, along with an attempted purge of 364,000 voters from the rolls. On June 25, the Justice Department announced it is suing Georgia against its new voting law under the Voting Rights Act. With the Voting Rights Act gutted by the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision that eliminated the Section 5 preclearance provision that required Justice Department approval to changes in election laws in states with a history of race-based voting discrimination, this lawsuit aims to prove racially discriminatory intent as well as effect under Section 2. Since it will likely take years for this case to be adjudicated, the restrictive Georgia laws will likely remain in effect through at least the 2022 mid-terms.
A NY Times editorial, “Congress Needs to Defend Vote Counting, Not Just Vote Casting,” noted on June 4 that the For the People Act does not address the problem that “Republican-controlled state legislatures are whittling away at the integrity of electoral democracy in the United States, rushing to pass laws that make it harder for Americans to vote and easier for partisans to tamper with election results.” It urged that “Congress also should establish uniform rules for vote counting, certification and challenges. It should also clarify its own role in certifying the results of presidential elections to prevent the possibility that a future Congress would overturn a state’s popular vote.”
Congressional legislation that prevents partisan election tampering by requiring independent nonpartisan vote counting and certification needs to be high on the pro-democracy agenda.
Fair Ballot Access
Denying the candidates of opposition political parties the right to be on the ballot is a mark of autocracies. By that standard, the United States is a two-party autocracy due to its onerous ballot access requirements. Candidates and political parties should have reasonable access to the ballot. Voters should have all political alternatives on their ballots.
Fair ballot access could be realized for federal elections by enacting a Fair Elections Act similar to that introduced by Rep. John Conyers from the late 1980s until the 101st Congress in 1999. Conyers’ bill set reasonable maximum standards for ballot access in federal elections that are far lower than those that prevail in most states today.
The candidate maximum petition signature requirement in Conyers’ bill was 1,000 signatures, or signatures of 0.1% of votes for the office in the previous election, whichever is greater, with a collection period between 270 and 60 days before the election.
The party vote required for a party to obtain ballot access for the next election cycle was 20,000 votes statewide, or 1% of votes cast for the preceding federal election for President or Senator, whichever is less. A party candidate for any statewide office would satisfy this requirement.
Applying the candidate petition maximum to the average House vote in 2020 of about 350,000, a petition of 0.1% of those voters would be 350 signatures, which means that in most House districts the 1,000 signature maximum would apply. Applying the party vote threshold to the presidential votes in 2020, a party would qualify for the state’s ballot in about half the states with 20,000 votes and less than that in the other states. These are far lower ballot access thresholds than now prevail in most states.
Without this kind of fair ballot access legislation for federal elections, independent and minor party candidates will remain systematically excluded from ballots in federal elections by petitioning requirements that are far more onerous in the U.S than in almost every other electoral democracy in the world. To run as an independent for the House of Commons in the U.K., it takes 10 signatures. It take 10 signatures for the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament. In New Zealand, it takes two signatures to run as an independent for its unicameral parliament. It takes 50 for Australia’s House of Representatives and 100 for Canada’s parliament (or 50 in the more rural districts). For Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, it takes 200 signatures to run as an independent.
But to run as an independent or new party candidate for the House of Representatives in the United States, it takes thousands or tens of thousands of petition signatures in most states to get placed on the ballot. In California, it takes 2,000 signatures; 3,500 in New York; over 5,000 in Ohio; over 7,500 in North Carolina; 10,400 in Florida; over 15,000 in Arizona and Illinois; over 20,000 in Georgia and Oklahoma; over 30,000 in Alabama; over 40,000 in Indiana.
To run for president as an independent or new party candidate, it takes over 860,000 signatures that have to be submitted through a gauntlet of 50 states and D.C., each with their own requirements for petition forms, qualified circulators and signers, starting and finishing deadlines, filing fees, and more.
In the absence of a federal fair ballot access law, third parties are fighting the major parties for ballot state by state in the legislature and the courts. Richard Winger’s Ballot Access News is indispensable for following these ballot access fights. The Democrats have taken aim at the Green Party in New York and Nevada. In a law attached to the state budget during the Covid lockdown in 2020, New York Democrats tripled the vote required to maintain ballot status and tripled the signatures required to get back on the ballot. The Green Party came up short on votes in 2020 and will have to collect 45,000 signatures in 42 days in 2022 to get back on the ballot, one of the most difficult standards in the nation. In Nevada last month, the Democrats rammed through a new law to increase ballot petitioning requirements on a party line vote. As Richard Winger notes in the June issue of Ballot Access News, “The true motive for the bill is to block the Green Party from getting back on the ballot.”
It is a sad commentary on progressive Democrats that the Nevada members of the Democratic Socialists of America won the leadership positions of the Nevada Democratic Party in March, but raised no objections last month as the former State Chair they defeated, Senator Roberta Lange, ushered through the restrictive ballot access bill on behalf of the old Harry Reid machine. In New York, none of the much-publicized democratic socialists in the New York legislature have done anything to reverse New York new ballot access restrictions.
Party suppression is a form of voter suppression. The Green Party brings out new voters. 61% of Jill Stein voters would not have voted in 2016 if she had not been on their ballots. Any democratic left worthy of the name would support fair ballot access. It is time for the democratic left and the voting rights movement to demand that progressives in Congress introduce federal fair ballot access legislation and build a movement for its enactment.
Over 90% of U.S. House disticts and over 95% of state legislative districts are uncompetitive one-party districts. Partisan gerrymandering takes advantage of single-member winner-take-all districts to create districts that are even more safe for incumbents. Most politicians don’t earn their seats; they inherit them. As a result, tens of millions of Americans are perpetually represented by politicians they oppose, with no hope of changing their representation by voting.
The remedy is proportional representation. Under proportional representation, each political viewpoint gets its fair share of representation that is proportional to the vote it receives. If a political viewpoint has 20% support among the voters, it gets 20% of the representatives on the legislative body.
The current system of single-member-district plurality voting is a winner-take-all system in which every political viewpoint is excluded from representation except the plurality winner. It is not only voters for minor parties like the Greens and Libertarians who are denied representation. Democrats in majority-Republican districts and Republicans in majority-Democratic districts are also denied representation.
The right to fair and proportional representation in the House of Representatives can be realized by enacting the Fair Representation Act. The bill requires that members of the House be elected by a ranked-choice voting system of proportional representation of all political viewpoints from multi-member districts.
With ranked-choice proportional represenation, no votes are wasted on losers if the voters’ choices are fully ranked. Every vote counts toward electing a fair share of representation for one’s political viewpoint.
Gerrymandering is eliminated. Redistricting can game single-member winner-take-all district lines for partisan gain, but not for multi-member districts using ranked-choice voting because every political viewpoint gets its proportional share of representation within those districts. Proportional representation is far more effective at eliminating gerrymandering than independent redistricting commissions. Although one-party partisan bias is removed, independent redistricting of single-member districts still yields a two-party bias where most districts will be uncompetitive and dominated by one of the two major parties.
With ranked-choice voting (RCV), voters rank their choices in order of preference. For voters, RCV is as easy as 1, 2, 3. Exit polls after RCV elections show that voters overwhelmingly understand it, find it easy to do, and prefer it to plurality voting.
The winning threshold in RCV is the smallest number of votes that guarantees that no more candidates can reach the threshold than the number of seats to be filled. The mathematical formula for the winning threshold is [Votes/(Seats+1)] +1. This works out to 50% of votes cast plus 1 vote for a single-seat election, 25% plus 1 for a three-seat election, 10% plus 1 for a nine-seat election, and so forth.
In a single-seat RCV election, if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the last place candidate is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are transferred to the candidate ranked next on those ballots. These rounds of instant-runoff voting continue until a candidate reaches a 50%-plus-one majority.
In a multi-seat RCV election, the surplus votes of candidates who exceed the winning threshold are transferred to their ballots’ next ranked choices. As we just saw, that winning threshold would be 25% plus one when electing three, 10% plus one when electing nine, and so forth. After the surplus votes are transferred, the last place candidate is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are transferred to the candidate ranked next on those ballots. These rounds of counting and transferring continue until all the seats are filled.
RCV proportional representation was instituted during the Progressive Era in 24 American cities, including Boulder, Cambridge, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York City, Sacramento, Toledo, Worcester, and Yonkers. By giving political and ethnic minorities their fair and proportional share of representation, RCV proportional representation created multi-party, multi-racial municipal democracies. These systems were repealed during the reactionary McCarthy Era, with its anti-communist crusade against the election of independent Labor, Socialist, and Communist candidates and its white backlash against the election of Black candidates as the post-war Civil Rights Movement was rising. RCV is now enjoying a revival. Fifty-one local jurisdictions and two states, Alaska and Maine, have adopted it in recent years and there are RCV campaigns currently in almost every state.
The voting rights movement should push for proportional representation at the municipal and state levels and for the House of Representatives through enactment of the Fair Representation Act so that voters are no longer denied their fair share of representatives of their own choosing.
Abolition of the Senate
Proportional representation of all political viewpoints is impossible in the U.S. Senate because it doesn’t even represent the people proportionally on a one-person, one-vote basis. 39.3 million Californians have just 1.5% of the voting power in the Senate of 586,000 people in Wyoming.
Disproportional representation in the Senate yields an inexorable mathematics of conservative minority rule in the federal government. The 11% of the voting-age population that has elected Republican senators can use the filibuster block legislation that the 89% of us may want. When it comes to treaty ratifications and constitutional amendments that require a two-thirds vote, 34 senators from states representing just 5% of the population hold a veto. Even if we had a filibuster-free Senate with majority rule, senators from states with just 16% of the people have enough votes to stop any bill. These least-populated states tend to represent the conservative rural white minority in America. The Senate’s structure gives them a minority veto over the nation’s progressive cosmopolitan multi-racial majority.
Eugene Debs ran for President on a Socialist Party platform that demanded abolition of the Senate. In 1911, Victor Berger, the Socialist Representative from Milwaukee, introduced a resolution to abolish the Senate. But the demand is far easier to raise than to implement thanks to Article V of the Constitution that provides for constitutional amendments and singles out the Senate for special protection with the clause “that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.”
That clause could be removed in an amendment to the Constitution that also abolished the Senate, but it would need 67 senators and 38 state legislatures for approval. Or under Article V, two-thirds of the states could compel a constitutional convention that could make these amendments, which three-quarters of the states would then have to ratify. Neither of these options will happen because small conservative states are not going to unanimously disempower themselves. Nor will another option: Abolishing the Senate as we know it by reforming it to proportionally represent state populations and proportionally represent the vote for each party’s candidates in the states as the Australian Senate does.
Abolishing the Senate completely, or as we know it, would take revolutionary change that bypasses existing constitutional channels. The voting rights movement should nonetheless raise the demand to Abolish the Senate as a way to expose how fundamentally undemocratic and unresponsive the Senate makes of the federal government. That exposure can help fuel the pro-democracy movement for other voting rights and electoral reforms pending a political revolution to finally deal with the problem of the anti-democratic Senate.
Abolition of the Electoral College and Presidential Elections by a Majority Popular Vote
The Electoral College makes U.S. presidential elections a ridiculous farce. Since the popular vote for president was first tallied in 1824, the Electoral College has elected a president who received less than a majority of the popular vote in 19 of 50 presidential elections, including five who lost the popular vote.
The elections of popular vote losers in 2000 and 2016 has heightened popular awareness of the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College. Donald Trump was not only installed by the Electoral College in 2016—it nearly happened again in 2020. If as few as 21,462 votes had gone to Trump instead of Biden across Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, the Electoral College vote would have been tied 269-269. Under the 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives would have voted for President in a one-state, one-vote election. With Republican majorities in 26 of the 50 state delegations, Trump would have been anointed again thanks to the Electoral College even though he lost the popular vote by 4.1% and 7.1 million votes.
To end the potential for such contemptible anti-democratic presidential election results, the pro-democracy movement should fight to eliminate or regulate the Electoral College in a way that replaces it with a ranked-choice popular vote for president. The ranked-choice vote will yield a majority vote for most preferred candidate in the final tally. An amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be required to eliminate the Electoral College and replace it with a ranked-choice national popular vote, which would require to two-third vote in both houses of Congress to send it out for ratification by three-quarters of the states.
A more politically feasible alternative would be for Congress regulate the Electoral College under its independent constitutional authority to regulate presidential elections in Article II, Section 1 and the 12th Amendment. A Ranked-Choice Vote in Presidential Elections Act has been proposed that would require states to use a common ranked-choice ballot for president. The federal Elections Assistance Commission would receive and tabulate each state’s ranked-choice vote to certify the results of the ranked-choice national popular vote.
An interim step toward congressional legislation for a national RCV popular vote for president would be to add an Interstate RCV Compact to the existing National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). In the NPVIC, states have pledged their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote once states accounting for an electoral vote majority of 270 or more have joined. To date, fifteen states and the District of Columbia have joined the NPVIC, accounting for 196 electoral votes, which is 72.6% of the 270 votes needed before the compact takes legal force. States in the Interstate RCV Compact would run their state’s RCV tally down to two and report the top two candidates’ vote totals for the purpose of the national popular vote.
A detailed discussion of the Ranked-Choice Vote in Presidential Elections Act and the Interstate RCV Compact is forthcoming in the Harvard Law & Policy Review from Rob Richie et al., “Toward a More Perfect Union: Integrating Ranked Choice Voting with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.”
Public Financing of Public Elections
In my previous criticisms of the public campaign matching funds program in the For the People Act, I argued that it effectively excludes third parties like the Greens from public funding. It increases five-fold the qualifying small donations at candidate must raise to qualify for presidential matching funds.
Commenting on the matching funds proposal in ballot access news, Richard Winger wrote, “It is unlikely that any of these candidates [third party candidates who qualified for matching funds since 1984] would have been able to qualify if the new proposal had been in effect in the past. And without these matching funds, it is unlikely that the candidates would have been able to get on the ballot in as many states as they did. Therefore the effect of H.R.1 and S.1 will be to limit voter choices in future elections, if the bills are signed into law.” Third party candidates have used their matching funds primarily to pay for ballot access drives.
The $50,000 threshold in small donations for matching funds for congressional candidates is also beyond the reach of third party upstarts like Green candidates. Putting Federal Elections Commission financial reports in a spreadsheet, we found that of the 544 Green Party candidates for the U.S. House between 1990 and 2000, only one candidate for sure and maybe two others raised the minimum of $50,000 in qualifying small contributions that is required by the For the People Act to qualify for matching funds.
The qualifying thresholds need to be accessible to third party and independent insurgents. Another problem with matching funds is that it magnifies the disparities between publicly-funded candidates by seven times with its six to one match of qualifying contributions. If one House candidate barely qualifies with $50,000 and another qualifies with $100,000, after the six to one match the first candidate has $350,000 and the second has $700,000. The disparity in their funding grows from $50,000 to $350,000.
Public election campaigns should be fully funded by the public. Private campaign contributions are legalized bribery when the big donors weigh in. The public matching funds program proposed in the For the People Act removes the existing limits on the amount of private money that publicly funded candidates can raise. In practice, the program would hand the most public money off to the richest privately-funded candidates.
The alternative is to adopt the Clean Money model of equal grants of public funding to all candidates who qualify, as Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine have done for years in their state elections. It would create a level playing field for all candidates. Joe Biden actually called for this in his election platform:
Biden will: Introduce a constitutional amendment to entirely eliminate private dollars from our federal elections. Biden believes it is long past time to end the influence of private dollars in our federal elections. As president, Biden will fight for a constitutional amendment that will require candidates for federal office to solely fund their campaigns with public dollars, and prevent outside spending from distorting the election process. This amendment will do far more than just overturn Citizens United: it will return our democracy to the people and away from the corporate interests that seek to distort it.
Of course, the next paragraph said “while we work toward a constitutional amendment,” Biden would propose legislation for a public matching funds program. That was the For the People Act. The promised full public financing constitutional amendment hasn’t been forwarded to Congress by President Biden.
The constitutional amendment the voting rights movement should support to enable full public financing of public elections is the proposed We The People Amendment (H.J.Res.48), which would reverse the Supreme Court doctrines that corporations have the same rights as natural persons and that money is speech in decisions like Citizens United that have hamstrung campaign finance regulation. The amendment would establish that only natural human beings, not artificial corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights, and that money is property, not protected speech. It would create the legal framework in which we could publicly and fully regulate and finance public elections.
Howie Hawkins was the 2020 Green Party candidate for President.